© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oscar Documentaries: A Look Behind The Scenes


Over the past two weeks, we've talked with filmmakers responsible for this year's nominees for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards. "Searching for Sugar Man," about the American folk rocker who, unbeknownst to him, provided the soundtrack to the Afrikaners side of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. "Five Broken Cameras," on a Palestinian village's resistance to Israel's security wall. "The Gatekeepers," which features five former heads of Israel's Shin Bet. "The Invisible War," on sexual assault in the U.S. military. And the history of ACT UP, "How to Survive a Plague." You can find those conversations at npr.org and just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, how the voting works, the business of Oscar documentaries and some reviews of this year's nominees. If you work in documentary filmmaking, what should we know about how this business works? What role do the Oscars play in it? 800-989-8255. Emails us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR arts critic Bob Mondello joins us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you back, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

CONAN: I understand that at the urging of Michael Moore, among others, the entire procedure has been revamped.

MONDELLO: Yes. The idea was - his idea was that this was going to make big popular pictures more likely to be documentary nominees. What was happening was that a lot of very small documentaries that had played for a day or two in New York and L.A. were getting through. Now, a picture has to play for a week in both New York and L.A. and has to be reviewed in either The L.A. Times or The New York Times in order to be mentioned in all of this. And it is - it's actually - it blocked a picture that was going to come out this year, by Sarah Polley, a new documentary about her family. That is a wonderful documentary. I saw it in Toronto but they decided that if, you know, they wanted the picture to come out later in the year, that if it was reviewed in The New York Times, you know, for a one-week run, they weren't going to go back and cover it again and they need that coverage when the picture comes out, so they decided not to do it then.

CONAN: Not to do it. So it has begun to make (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: It's already affecting it, you know.

CONAN: Maybe but this year, there is no big blockbuster documentary that's - that made a lot of money at the box office that's being denied a spot in the Oscar nomination.

MONDELLO: That's true. And in fact, only one of these pictures had done a lot of business. The "Searching for Sugar Man" has made over $3 million. The others have all made less than 200,000. A couple of them made, you know, just less than $100,000. That's a very small audience that these pictures have played to so far.

CONAN: So given that, who actually votes on these?

MONDELLO: Most of the documentarians, at this point. The first level of it is that the documentary people who are in the documentary category get to vote to place pictures into the general - what do you call that? To make the original nominees. To narrow things out of 15 in the category, and then narrow it down to five. Those are mostly documentarians, people who work in the field. After that, everybody gets to vote, provided that they had seen all five of the pictures. So everybody in the Academy gets to vote at that point, that's over 6,000 members. Now, how many of them see all five pictures? I don't know. So this maybe a very small number of people who are actually voting.

CONAN: And what difference, we'd hope to hear from documentarians in our audience, as well, about this, but what difference does it make? It seems that the festival circuit is the big engine for documentaries.

MONDELLO: Well, I think that's partly true. But the other place where people see documentaries is mostly on, you know, that you can rent them, you can get them on demand and that's where people saw the pictures that are the ones that - I would've expected "Queen of Versailles," about a woman who, with her husband, decided to build a palatial mansion - the largest private house in the world to make it. And mostly that picture was seen not in theaters but elsewhere. And the same with, you know, there are a few pictures that make it in the box office these days, but documentaries usually are not those pictures.

CONAN: Well, let's take a look at some of the films that did make it to the five top nominees. We'll start with "Searching for Sugar Man." It's an extraordinary story of a Detroit musician who was a flop - a complete flop in the record business here in the United States in the early 1970s. But completely unbeknownst to him, somebody brought one of his albums over. It became an underground hit in South Africa, the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement, at least for the whites in the anti-apartheid movement. And, well, a legend grew up around him.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We didn't know who this guy was. All the other rock stars, we had all the information we needed. But this guy, there was nothing. Then we found out that he committed suicide. He set himself alight onstage and burned to death in front of the audience. It is the most incredible thing. It wasn't just a suicide. It was the probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history.

CONAN: Of course, that wasn't the only story...


MONDELLO: There were other stories...

Forgive me, I don't mean to laugh at that story because it turns out that wasn't true.

CONAN: And it turns out Sugar Man is very much alive. But the - it's a remarkable story.

MONDELLO: Yeah, it's terrific and fascinating to watch. And it's heartwarming in a way that is kind of amazing, and I think that that - that's one of the kind of - one of the things that helps a documentary sometimes is that it gets to you. It gets to your emotions. And this one really does in a very affirmative way.

CONAN: There's sort of an elegance to the storytelling as well. It's nicely done.

MONDELLO: Yeah. They hide things from you for a long time as your watching it, and it's kind of neat the way they do that. I, you know, I wasn't - I didn't know the story when I saw the film. And...

CONAN: No, neither did I. I mean you know, you saw the capsule, but you know...

MONDELLO: Right. And as it unveils itself in much the way that it did to the folks who were doing the search for Sugar Man, you are kind of fascinated and find it really compelling. And then when he's finally in front of a crowd in South Africa, it's really moving.

CONAN: It's really astonishing. Here's the first Palestinian film to be nominated for best documentary feature, "5 Broken Cameras." An amateur filmmaker and co-director Emad Burnat documents clashes in his village in the West Bank with Israeli security forces who build a fence, the security fence right through some of the village land. The filmmaker took a lot of risks in making this, including facing the wrath of his wife.


CONAN: You don't have to understand Arabic to understand the frustration of when are you going to stop this silly filmmaking.

MONDELLO: Stop with the cameras. The five cameras are all broken by Israeli forces at one point or another. One of them is shot out of his hands. He almost dies during the course of the filmmaking. It is a - it's a really sort of wrenching picture about that - about the whole dispute over the settlements that are - in the eyes of the Palestinians are encroaching on their land and basically taking it over. And it's a very powerful documentary. It'll be hard to watch this and not be sort of enraged at what's happening there and the powerlessness of the people who are, you know, like this guy who is just - his house is in the way kind of.

CONAN: And is brushed aside and their complaints are not listened to, his story of his friends, one of whom is killed in the process of this. Nevertheless, it's a film by an amateur. There are moments that seem amateurish.

MONDELLO: Well, I think that's fair. On the other hand, you're looking at a story about broken cameras. It is, you know, this is one of the things you have to decide when you're looking at these pictures. What exactly are you judging? Are you judging the story? Or are you judging the quality of the filmmaking, the innovation in the filmmaking? It's arguable in some of these pictures that they are doing very conventional things. And this one is not doing a conventional thing. This is doing something that's a little bit out there. So it's kind of interesting to watch that.

CONAN: Yet all of - many of these films, and this has been true for years, are issue movies. They are advocacy films saying this is an outrage, whatever the issue is.

MONDELLO: Right. "Sugar Man" less than the others, but yes, that's absolutely true. I - and I think, you know, the picture that changed things was "The Thin Blue Line," Errol Morris's picture quite a few years ago, that got a murder case re-opened. And I think what has happened since then is that advocacy documentaries have become much more the norm than they used to be. You know, there was a time when if you were making a documentary, you made it about bears or something like that. You made it a very simple kind of thing. And that would be...

CONAN: Or the lives of the Inuit or "Man of Aran."

MONDELLO: Right. Exactly. And these days you're making a picture about the bears being forced out of their habitat because of something, right? It's a different kind of filmmaking, and it's advocacy journalism in a way.

CONAN: "The Invisible War" documents the scope and problems of sexual assault in the U.S. military. It featured a number of interviews with victims.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I got there in February. By April I was drugged and raped for the first time. I had like a cold or pneumonia-like symptoms, and so they sent me to get checked out. And while I was waiting to be examined, he came in and he helped himself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He said he was going to the bathroom. And he came into my room, and that's when he raped me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The entire time I was screaming and yelling for help and for him to stop. Nobody came to the door. Nobody came to help me, came to my rescue or anything.

CONAN: And this is a film that follows the stories of several of these women, mostly women - there are a couple of men as well - and the insensitivity and the outrage of the fact that the U.S. military will not respond to their cases.

MONDELLO: Yeah. And in fact - you were talking about advocacy documentaries. This is a picture that very clearly advocates for changes in the system and...

CONAN: Specific changes.

MONDELLO: Right. And that at the end of the documentary there's a legend on the screen that says that Leon Panetta watched it and two days later changed part of the way that the military deals with these kinds of cases. That is a fascinating little addendum to a documentary that clearly wants to have that kind of effect. And what it says immediately thereafter is, this is a good step but it's not enough.

CONAN: We're talking NPR arts critic Bob Mondello about the films nominated for best feature documentary this year at the Academy Awards. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Daniel is with us. Daniel from Austin, Texas.

DANIEL: Hi. Thank you very much, Neal.


DANIEL: It's really great to hear the commentary that you guys are mentioning. It's spot on. I've both sides of it, both in having films in the Oscar contention and trying to get notice and the process that it takes to - especially when you're a smaller film - to really get yourself to that level.

But I think the thing that's really interesting now that I haven't seen in the past is - I'm one of the original members of a group called group PUGG, P-U-G-G, and our platform essentially helps documentary filmmakers as well as narrative filmmakers really find their niche audiences and pinpoint in what areas of the country and soon to be in other countries where your film might play. And basically it's just like Kickstarter meets Netflix for movie theatres.

So in essence you have to meet a certain threshold of people interested to see your film and buy a normal movie ticket priced ticket to it, and the theater is yours. So we've done actually over a thousand events now but a lot of those have been, you know, filmmakers looking for a way to distribute their content nationwide, because your big dream is, oh, I'm going to play in Sundance, I'm going to play at some other big festival and we're going to get picked up and we'll have a distributor and our film is going to get out there.

But even in the case of some of the bigger documentaries, you're really looking at very few cities, very little support in order to really help get that message up. So it's kind of like we need to present tools to filmmakers to get that voice out there, especially when it comes to things that may not be financially valuable to a distributor as some of these niche docs are. But what we've noticed is that you can actually do national releases with - whatever film it is, there is going to be an audience for it. And it's kind of like up to you to make that decision of which cities you play in, depending on on-demand market size.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting - finding that boutique market, if you will, Bob Mondello, making the film is hard enough, raising that money. Making money at it, that's almost impossible.

MONDELLO: Yes, the exhibition of these pictures is a real tricky thing. And it's one of the hassles that documentary companies have when they're trying to distribute them, is that outside of New York and L.A., a lot of these pictures don't play, never play. And I think the caller's program is a wonderful one for getting things out there. What is difficult these days is to know where - I mean a lot of these pictures, when you see them, you think, well, that's sort of an HBO documentary. That's sort of a, you know, not - whether it's made by HBO or not, it - maybe the style of those documentaries. And you think that the people have learned the techniques now and there's a way of making them.

And this is what I said before about - you have to figure out what it is you're judging with this kind of thing, whether you're judging the adventuresomeness of it, the message of it, the simple - I mean, you know, with the last one, "Invisible War," I ended up feeling, oh my God, this story is just wrenching. And then I started thinking about, well, OK, and how much of the storytelling was...

CONAN: Was - yes. Exactly.

MONDELLO: Right, which is different story.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

DANIEL: Thank you.

CONAN: We've got two more films to go. The next one is the "How to Survive a Plague," which documented the story of ACT UP, the activist group that fought for scientific research on AIDS in the '80s and '90s. Largely successful in the end, but the group suffered internal divisions that at one point led co-founder Larry Kramer to make this impassioned speech at a meeting in 1991.


LARRY KRAMER: Plague. Forty million infected people is a (bleep) plague. We are in the worst shape we have ever, ever, ever been in. All those pills we're shoveling down our throats, forget it. ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe. They can't get together. Nobody agrees with anything. All we can do is field a couple hundred people at a demonstration. That's not going to make anybody pay attention.

CONAN: And this is an astonishing collection of archival footage.

MONDELLO: Yeah. It's really remarkable. It's also a picture with - I don't want to spoil the moment in it that I just wept, but there is a moment towards the end where - and it's not because somebody dies. It's more complicated. It is - it's a very cannily made picture about something that there were cameras trained on a lot, and so they were able to find this archival footage about all kinds of things. And it's fascinating to watch it and to watch the people age in it. And...

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off but we have just a minute left and one film many tout as the likely winner, and that is "The Gatekeepers," a film from Israel with interviews of five former heads of Shin Bet, the internal - their equivalent of the FBI.

MONDELLO: And, boy, is it powerful.

CONAN: And it is - as we look at these films, is that - that's the one I didn't see because it was reviewed on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and not on our show. But I imagined five static interviews.

MONDELLO: Oh, no, no, no, no. They have a lot of reenactments of events, a lot of footage of events, a lot of footage from satellite, where you're watching things crashing. It's a - it's quite a picture, really powerful.

CONAN: NPR arts critic Bob Mondello and I will both be watching on Oscar night to see which of those five films win the Oscar for best feature documentary. Bob, thanks very much.

MONDELLO: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at how a new play that imagines what Isaac Newton might look like if he were alive today, and I think they're going to be talking about that asteroid. We'll see you again on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.