There’s a game Oscar nerds like to play, where you zero in on a certain category in a certain year and say, “How on earth did they pick a winner?” Mostly, it’s the sexier categories—Best Picture, Director, Actor—that are remembered; epic years like 1975, when One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fended off Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville and Barry Lyndon. Yet, just as often, the less glamorous sections provide heady matchups. Cinematography is always a good bet, with its revolving door of Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson and Janusz Kamiński. So is Original Screenplay—imagine how it must have felt to be a Mel Brooks fan in 1969, when he triumphed over Stanley Kubrick, Gillo Pontecorvo, John Cassavetes and Peter Ustinov.
This year, the golden section is Documentary Feature. Non-fiction is better equipped than fiction film to respond to events on the ground, and the simmering anger that exploded into the Black Lives Matter movement in recent times has found a cinematic response in three films that explore the subject of race in America: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made In America. Equally of the moment is Fire At Sea, which looks at the global refugee crisis through the lives of residents on the island of Lampedusa. The selection is rounded off by Life, Animated, the only safe pick of the bunch.
No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture. This would have been a great year to change that. 13th is more politically and stylistically potent than Hidden Figures or Fences, and the merits of Fire At Sea far outweigh those of Lion.
Race, America and non-fiction
The Netflix-produced 13th tells the history of black America through the prism of incarceration. Ava DuVernay, who has directed both documentaries and features (including the Oscar-nominated Selma) in the past, traces a direct line from slavery and Jim Crow to the war on drugs and the exceptionally high rates of black incarceration. The film packs a miniseries worth of information into 100 urgent minutes. Arguments by politicians and activists, from former Black Panther Angela Davis to former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, are interspersed with video footage as the film touches on everything from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth Of A Nation, to Bill Clinton’s controversial 1994 Federal Crime Bill and finds in each case evidence of discrimination against people of colour.
DuVernay isn’t content to let the material speak for itself—she fashions it in such a way that its import is inescapable. The camera is kept in motion during the interviews, which lends a sense of dynamism to a stock documentary situation. One devastating bit of editing has Donald Trump’s voice cheering the removal of a protester from his campaign rally, intercut with black and white images of racial violence. When Trump says, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” DuVernay shows us old newsreel footage of a black man being punched by a white one. We hear, “In the good old days…they’d be carried out on a stretcher”, and we see a black woman being stretcher-ed away.
Like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro looks to the past to try and understand present-day racial discrimination. Directed by Haitian film-maker Raoul Peck and based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, it marries the words of the late novelist and critic (read by Samuel L. Jackson) with documentary footage and interviews. Baldwin was one of the great essayists of his time, and a complex figure: gay and black in an age when neither was an easy thing to be.
In a 1961 collection of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin wrote that one of his aims was “to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even merely a Negro writer”. An unexpected echo of this is found in Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America, a nearly 8-hour documentary made for ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. In the 1960s, sociologist Harry Edwards approached O.J. Simpson, the biggest name in college football in the US, to join his Olympic Project for Human Rights. In the film, Edwards recalls that when he told Simpson he was trying to get black athletes to play a role in the civil rights movement, the reply he received was, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
O.J.: Made In America, though commissioned by ESPN, is neither a standard sports film nor another revisiting of the O.J. murder trial. Instead, Edelman lays out, in great detail, the roots of the fractious relations between the black community and law enforcement in Los Angeles, and especially the allegations of racism that have dogged the LA police for decades. The murder—of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown—and the subsequent trial, in which Simpson was found not guilty, doesn’t figure in the first 3 hours.
Breaking the rules
Edelman’s reconstruction of racial fault lines is painstaking and powerful, but the film’s selection for the Oscars does raise some uncomfortable questions about nomination criteria. O.J.: Made In America clearly isn’t to be consumed in one sitting; it’s a five-part series, not an 8-hour film. Edelman admitted on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast that the theatrical release was engineered in order to be eligible for the Oscars. By buying into this, the Academy may have set an awkward precedent. Could a limited fiction series—like, say, The Night Of—cobble together its episodes, release it in theatres, and be considered for Best Picture?
These films by DuVernay, Peck and Edelman have more than a broad subject in common—they’re also stylistically similar, using archival footage and interviews to construct arguments that are placed squarely in front of the viewer. On the other hand, you could get halfway through Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea and still not be able to say exactly what the film is about. This is a purely observational documentary—no narration, no interviews, no handholding. Much of it is simply an impassive camera observing the citizens of Lampedusa go about their lives: a boy honing his slingshot skills, a grandmother phoning in and requesting ballads from a radio jockey.
Rosi, who also shot the film, interrupts the tranquillity of these scenes with chaotic, wrenching scenes of refugees arriving from Africa and the Middle East, packed in small boats. There are no explicit parallels drawn, just the constant, subtle juxtaposition of the easy-going lives of the locals (in particular a talkative, engaging boy called Samuel) and the migrants who risk theirs to reach what they hope will be a safe haven. Even the big dramatic scenes—like when a group of refugees join in a mournful song that tells the story of their cross-continental journey—seem to arise, unplanned and unforced, from the material.
Perhaps the Academy voters felt that five perfectly serious films would be too much to handle. The final entry in the category is a disappointing one. In Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated, a young man with autism learns to communicate with the world through lines and characters from animated Disney movies. With its Reader’s Digest-ready story and occasional hand-drawn sequences, the film is heartfelt but unremarkable—a feel-good candidate in a sobering group.
If you look at the official list from which the five films were selected, it becomes clear what an outstanding year for documentary 2016 was. It’s hard not to feel that the Academy missed a trick by selecting Life, Animated over the genuinely innovative animation of Tower, which uses rotoscopy to tell the story of a famous 1966 shooting at the University of Texas. Or they might have made it an all-political year by nominating Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow or Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner. It’s especially difficult to believe that Cameraperson, which assembles footage shot by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson for other directors’ films over 25 years, was passed over: This subtly radical film has an un-didactic approach, which would have made it a perfect partner for Fire At Sea.
At the Berlinale last year, Rosi’s film won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. It might surprise those used to the segregation of fiction and documentary that non-fiction films compete for top prizes at the world’s leading film festivals (and occasionally win, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 at Cannes in 2004, or Rosi’s Sacro GRA at the Venice Film Festival in 2013). This year in particular demonstrates that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be part of the Best Picture race at the Oscars