February 25, 2012

Doc Nominees Feted at Academy


Above photo:  Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Looking resplendent in his Oscar-friendly garb of t-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, Michael Moore bounded onto the stage of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater Wednesday night to commandeer the sold-out DOCS! program. Now in its third year of saluting the Oscar-nominated films and filmmakers in the documentary categories, DOCS! had its genesis in IDA's long-running Oscar Nominees Reception.   

Moore opened with a keynote address, of sorts, about the power of documentaries "It's
important to tell true stories," he said. "The public wants the truth, and they've been lied to." He also talked about the new rules for qualifying documentaries for Academy Award consideration, in the spirit of the theatrical experience, citing the soon-to-be-opened Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, which will showcase documentaries year-round, as a model to be replicated. "It's our art," he stressed. "These are films you should see with your fellow Americans; they should be something to be experienced collectively."

And with that, he introduced the nominees in the Documentary Short Subject category for a panel discussion. Moore pointed out the empty chair on stage was in honor of Gail Dolgin, the director/producer,
with Robin Fryday, of The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. Dolgin had passed away of breast cancer in October 2010, before the film was completed, and the film's subject, James Armstrong, had passed in November 2009.

Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson were on hand for God Is the Bigger Elvis, which Moore cited as "the one comedy in the group." Moore himself had actually considered the priesthood in his post-college years; "Now, I'm a recovering Catholic," he admitted. Anderson noted that the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey in the film "were extremely generous" with respect to questions about contraception and abortion. "These nuns are quite modern." Cammisa, whose
mother had been a nun for ten years, discussed the difference between "spiritual" and "religious" as contrasting means of engagement with the modern world.   

On the eve of former soldier Bradley Manning's trial for leaking video footage of a July 2007 attack on Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians by US helicopters to WikiLeaks, James Spione discussed his film Incident in New Baghdad, which includes that footage in its entirety, as a pretext for profiling one soldier, US Army Specialist Ethan McCord, who was on the ground that day. "This film is about taking an international incident and bringing it to ground level, showing the personal trauma because of it," Spione asserted. "It's a film about empathy; war strips that away."

Daniel Junge sought out Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to team up with him in her native Pakistan to make Saving Face, about Pakistani women who have survived acid attacks—often at the hands of their husbands, who invariably avoid punishment—and about individuals who are striving to make changes in this dreadful  condition. The filmmakers spent four months in the edit room, and determined that the short form was the more potent one for both telling the story and trying to find redemption and hope.

 As in the case with so many documentary films, what you end up with doesn't always square with your original intentions. Such was the case with Lucy Walker's The Tsumani and the Cherry Blossom; she had planned to screen her film Countdown to Zero in Japan, then make a
short "visual haiku" about the cherry blossom season, when the earthquake hit-followed
in short, devastating order by the tsumani and the nuclear disaster. She decided to go to Japan, with cinematographer Aaron Phillips, and amid the severe trauma—no power, water or transportation for a week—they engaged an American translator there and found survivors to tell their stories, as the cherry blossom season began.

Discussing the short form itself, the panel agreed that "short is the new long." "Shorts don't go longer than they should," Anderson agreed," while some features are
too long."


Left to right: Oscar winner and Host Michael Moore; Kira Carstensen and Lucy Walker, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, Saving Face ; James Spione, Incident in New Baghdad; Julie Anderson and Rebecca Cammisa, God Is the Bigger Elvis; Robin Fryday, The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. Photo: Greg Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.



In the subsequent panel of filmmakers from the nominated documentary features, Wim Wenders extolled the virtues of 3D—his format of choice for Pina—suggesting it as the "secret
weapon" for keeping documentaries in theaters. "3D is the future of the documentary language," he asserted, citing digital, then HD as the precursors. While 3D technology may not have served Danfung Dennis in the battlefields of Afghanistan when making Hell and Back Again, he too helped create a new cinematic experience with the camera equipment he developed for his film. "Hell and Back Again and Pina would not have been made three years ago," noted Dan Lindsay, director/producer of Undefeated.

For most of the features half of the evening, Moore kept the conversational topic on the challenge of getting documentaries into theaters (albeit with a veiled dig at IDA's DocuWeeks, and no mention of DocuDay). Sam Cullman of If a Tree Falls lauded Moore for helping to make documentaries more popular, given the impressive number of $1 million box office grossers in the past decade. Moore countered that he may raised unreasonable expectations among distributors and
exhibitors for all documentaries. He also noted that Sony Pictures Classics, which has distributed such successes as Riding Giants, The Fog of War and last year's Oscar winner, Inside Job, was talking about backing off from documentaries altogether.   

Wenders reiterated, "We should be more adventurous in our language," while Joe
Berlinger of Paradise Lost 3 felt filmmakers should be "expanding the definition of what is the cinematic experience."

"It's the Lord's work that we do," Moore concluded the evening. "Let's do all we can for this art."



Front row, left to right: Sam Cullman, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front; TJ Martin and Dan Lindsay, Undefeated; Joe Berlinger, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Back row, left to right: Marshall Curry, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front; Rich Middlemas, Undefeated; Mike Lerner, and Danfung Dennis, Hell and Back Again; Wim Wenders, Pina; host/Oscar winner Michael Moore. Photo: Greg Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.