Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sizing Up The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Docs

The conversation about next month’s Oscars, the 88th Academy Awards (ABC, Feb. 28), may be deservedly dominated by the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing, but I’d like to bypass that mess for now to take a look at the nominees of a way less controversial category: Best Documentary Feature.

It’s one that you can easily catch up on too, as three of the five nominees are available for streaming on Netflix Instant: Matthew Heineman’s CARTEL LAND, Evgeny Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, and Liz Garbus’ WHAT HAPPENED, NINA SIMONE?

The remaining docs, Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE, and Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees’s AMY are available on Blu ray and DVD, as well as streaming services such as iTunes and Amazon Video.

As it was the first doc I watched after the nominations were announced earlier this month, I’ll start with Heineman’s CARTEL LAND, about cartel members and vigilante groups on both sides of the Mexico-US border in the Mexican drug war that’s been raging since 2006. It’s at times shocking the access Heineman had as he follows along such subjects as Tim “Nailer” Foley of the paramilitary outfit called “Arizona Border Recon,” and Michoacán-based physician Dr José Mireles, of the Autodefensas, who were founded in 2013.

Much of the film plays like a shaki-cam action thriller, and its startling to hear the stories of the beheadings, and mass murder of innocent citizens by the evil Knights Templar cartel, but the film lost me a bit in its last third as it gets into murkily shot interrogation/torture scenes, and a lengthy bit in which Mireles sleazily hits on a young woman also muddied my takeaway. CARTEL LAND is two thirds of a powerful doc about how power corrupts, especially in the lawless border zones. Its intrigue is great enough for me to see why it was nominated, but I really wouldn’t bet on it to win.

There’s a similar amount of blood on the ground in Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE, about events that happened around the same time, but on the other side of the world in the Ukraine. Through footage and interviews, Russian-Israeli director Afineevsky tells the story of the protests in Ukraine’s Kiev in December 2013 through February 2014, that started out as peaceful student demonstrations but escalated into violence with police and paramilitary forces attacking and killing many of the protesters. It can be pretty tough going as the focus can seem as scattershot as the unwieldy crowds on display, but the film has an impactful passion to its breakdown of the proceedings, and much like CARTEL LAND, the access the filmmakers have is truly eye-opening.

The theme that people have the power to come together to make change is one that many, many docs share, but WINTER ON FIRE through its deep examination of material that I’m guilty of ignoring by not watching news reports or by not clicking on links that better informed folks than me post on Facebook stands out more than just about any other big issue doc I’ve seen in ages. It’s got tough competition in this category, but this Netflix production could well be a wild card.

What has a bigger chance at the win is Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE, which is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s previous Oscar nominee, 2012’s THE ACT OF KILLING – both of which are co-directed by somebody credited as “Anonymous.” The reason for that mystery credit is severely apparent when viewing either or both films as they concern the still living, and still in power perpetrators in the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. 

While THE ACT OF KILLING, streaming on Netflix Instant in both theatrical and director's cut versions, dealt with members of the death squads chillingly recounting and reenacting their killings, THE LOOK OF SILENCE involves the perspective of the survivors and the victim's families, particularly a 44-year-old optometrist named Adi Rukun, as he confronts the men responible for his brother Ramli's death in he 1965 Indonesian genocide of more than a million alleged Communists.

The reaction that these men have recalls all the Nazi-rationales - i.e. “I was just following orders” - with, of course, nobody taking responsibility for their actions. But it goes further than that, and deeper than ACT, when Rukun gets warnings from relatives that his life may be in danger for going through with this project, but he doesn't shy away from asking one of his interviewees, who's now in the legislature: “How do you do politics surrounded by the families of the people you've killed?”

THE LOOK OF SILENCE is incendiary stuff indeed, and it has a good shot at the gold - that is, unless a certain crowd-pleasing music biodoc has the edge.

That would be AMY, Kapadia and Gay-Rees’s doc depiction of   British R&B-soul singer Amy Winehouse, which is the only documentary here that's in the top 10 grossing indie films of 2015 (it's #10 - of course). 

I raved about the film last summer (Amy Winehouse’s Rise And Decline Makes For A Devastating Doc 7/10/15), and would love it if it won. It's an up close and personal biodoc, with so much revealing footage of the troubled yet true songstress, that, via a strong home movie vibe, often makes us feel like we're were right there with Ms. Winehouse, whether riding with her in a car between gigs, or hanging with her in Camden flat. 

But it's the excerpts from the woman's performances, most of which have individual lyrics in handwritten fonts superimposed, that make this such a stunner and highlight what a tremendous loss Winehouse's death was to the world. So yeah, I'm pulling for this one.

Lastly, there's another music biodoc that's almost as equally deserving - Liz Garbus' WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? about legendary singer, activist, and North Carolina native Nina Simone (1933-2003). It's the only movie on the ballots that actually pays tribute to a black artist, but, yeah, it was made by a white person. Then, hey, it's the only doc in the category that was directed by a woman, so there's that.

Anyway, the footage amassed here in this doc that takes its name from a Maya Angelou quote is stellar. Clips such as Simone performing “Little Liza Jane” at Newport in 1960, appearing on Hugh Hefner's short lived TV show Playboy's Penthouse to play Gershwin's “I Loves You, Porgy,” and her comeback show from her self-imposed 8-year exile at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 had me later going to YouTube to see more. 

Garbus' exploration of the volatile yet very vulnerable Simone's journey from aspiring classical pianist to '60s civil rights icon is riveting (especially considering that this was a woman who told Martin Luther King, Jr. that she was “not non violent”), as are the tales told about her tumultuous relationship with her husband manager Andrew Stroud (surprisingly an interviewee). 

Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, sums the messiness of her mother's later years best: “People seem to think that when she went out on stage, that was when she became Nina Simone, but my mother was Nina Simone 24/7, that’s where it became a problem.”

But when it gets down to the last ten minutes, even a cursory skim of Simone's wikipedia entry will tell you that this film glosses over a lot of juicy stuff about the lady's demise in its race to conclusion. Despite that flaw, this biodoc is strongly recommended. It would be quite the upset if it won.

At this point, I'm predicting a win for THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Things change a lot in the weeks leading up to the show, so I may change my mind for my official predictions to be posted a few days before the broadcast, but for now, it really feels like its Oppenheimer and Anonymous' year.

* Triangle area folks should take note that the Full Frame Documentary Festival’s Winter Series will be showing CARTEL LAND on February 16th at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.

More later...

1 comment:

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