Academy Hosts DOCS! for Oscars Nominees
By Tom White
Above Photo: Matt Petit/(c) AMPAS
Academy Award-winner Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk; Common Threads) opened the DOCS! event at the Academy's Goldwyn Theater Wednesday night by thanking the IDA for hosting the Oscar nominees in the doc categories for the past 27 years. And with that, the torch was passed to its rightful owner.
According to IDA Founder Linda Buzzell, in a piece she wrote for Documentary Magazine on the occasion of IDA's 20th anniversary, the Oscars Reception was one of IDA's first public events, spurred by the fact that Nigel Nobel, winner for the 1981 short Close Harmony, was totally snubbed by the press backstage, who preferred to talk to presenters Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss instead. In the quarter-century since then, the Documentary Short Subject category was on the endangered species list several times, but IDA led the charge to keep that category thriving. Early last decade, changes started to take root: The documentary category got its own branch, along with three governors, and its current roster now totals over 150 members; the rules for qualifying one's doc for Academy Award consideration went through several iterations, some controversial (the 14-city roll out, the two 35mm prints, etc.); and the Academy expanded its extra-Oscars programming to include more documentary screenings and events.
So it seemed a little counter-intuitive for IDA to host an Oscars event in the very building where the Oscars and most other AMPAS activities were planned. And so, AMPAS made its debut as host.
Two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.; American Dream) took the stage to moderate two separate panels--one for the shorts, one for the features-after introducing clips from all the nominated films before the filmmakers mounted the stage.
Left to right: Elise Pearlstein (Food, Inc.); Barbara Kopple, Louis Psihoyos (The Cove), Rick Goldsmith (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers), Judith Ehrlich (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the POentagon Papers), Lise Lense-Moller (Burma VJ), Anders Ostergaard (Burma VJ), Rebacca Cammisa (Which Way Home), Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.). Photo: Matt Petit/(c) AMPAS
Most of the films were produced at great risk, often in dangerous places. Discussing the challenges of filming in a society like China, director Matthew O'Neill of China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, which documents the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province and the actions of the parents of children who died in poorly constructed classrooms, said that the chaos surrounding the earthquake "enabled us to capture images of the protestors at a very early stage because the authorities weren't on their ball in terms of repression." But soon enough, the filmmakers were threatened with arrest, but by the time they were actually detained, they had shipped their footage out of the country. Anders Østergaard, of course, relied on flip cam footage from on-the-ground journalists to get the story that became Burma VJ. And when they started production in 2004, "There was nothing to film. People were too afraid to tell their stories" But now, according to producer Lise Lens-Mulkler, "Burmese are mostly optimistic about change; there are more citizen journalists." The Cove actually had a director of covert operations among its artistic personnel, according to director Louis Psihoyos, in his aim to expose the slaughter of dolphins in the coastal town of Taiji in Japan, for the eventual purpose of supplying mercury-laden dolphin meat to stores. But is film is not about bashing Japan, the filmmaker insisted. "The film is a love letter to Japan; it's about healthy eating."
As is Robert Kenner's Food Inc., for which he was often denied access to where he wanted to shoot. "We wanted to have a dialogue in the film, but corporations refused to be in the film," Kenner said. "But now the dialogue is happening." And while General Motors denied Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant) access to the plant and to the top brass, the filmmakers opted to focus on the workers anyway. "We wanted to show what it meant to work in a factory," Reichert said. And it wasn't easy getting the workers to agree at first, given the swarm of local and international reporters following the story. "The workers auditioned us," said Bognar "So we did something we never do: We showed them a rough cut of what we had shot so far." That worked, and not only did the filmmakers have their cast, but the workers agreed to shoot footage inside the plant.
Although the evening didn't call for questions from the audience, Kopple handled both panels with grace and geniality. "We want each other to succeed," she said of the nominees-and the documentary community in general. "I feel very privileged to be on stage with all of you."