This year’s five Oscar-nominated documentary filmmakers agree: In an especially crowded content landscape, finding a story that they have to tell is critical. “Compelled, obsessed — I mean, you have to really love [a topic]. You have to just feel like it has a gravitational pull towards you,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” director Laura Poitras said.
“A film is very often like a fever dream. You jump off a cliff,” said Shaunak Sen, the director of “All That Breathes.” “It just takes a sort of life of its own.”
Poitras and Sen were recently joined by fellow 2023 nominees Sara Dosa (“Fire of Love”), Simon Lereng Wilmont (“A House Made of Splinters”) and Daniel Roher (“Navalny”) in a panel hosted by TheWrap’s CEO and editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman in Los Angeles. The wide-ranging discussion, held as part of TheWrap’s Oscar-Nominated Documentary Features Showcase and its 2022-2023 Awards Season Screening Series, covered everything from how documentarians establish trust with a subject, how they find the right structure to tell their story and why they film with – or without – an audience in mind.
Sen continued, explaining that when he and his producer Aman Mann began their film about brothers in New Delhi who rescue Black Kite birds, worrying about an audience was far from front-of-mind. “I’ve never made a film that’s been distributed. And the thing is, at least when we’re making [a film], you make something because it doesn’t exist. I don’t really think of the audience at all, actually, because I’ve never had an audience. The scale of the audience and the reach of the film this time is truly nothing that Aman and I could have ever conceived of.”
The idea of finding an audience with “Fire of Love” was also brand new for Dosa. Her film charts the lifework and romance of volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, who died in 1991, using hundreds of hours of “absolutely stunning and surreal” footage of erupting volcanos and red-hot lava that the couple left behind. While it’s become beloved by many since its Sundance 2022 debut, Dosa noted how her first two films struggled to find theatrical distribution.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a film that has been widely seen. They were labors of love,” she said of her previous work. “My team and I, we couldn’t not make them, they were films so infused with our own passion … I’m so grateful for ‘Fire of Love’ being out and wide, but I’m just going to continue to make the work that means so much to me and my collaborators, even if it’s seen by only a handful of people on the film festival circuits.”
“For me, [making a film] is a curiosity,” Wilmont added. “This story intrigues me and it makes me want to explore the adventures that it kind of hides, so to speak. I think doing it the the other way around — thinking, could this be a good film to get out there in the world and have a huge, huge audience? — that would be a completely wrong thing to do.”
For Poitras, who won an Oscar in 2015 for her documentary on Edward Snowden, “Citizenfour,” the key to unlocking “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” was building trust between her and artist Nan Goldin, the film’s subject. It grew over time.
“Nan says often that she makes photographs because she wants to tell a history of her life that nobody can change and re-edit. So it was a big deal for her to collaborate [with me],” Poitras said. “It was an organic process. She has a lot of agency in the film. I have final cut on the film, I’m the director of the film. But of course I wanted it to be to be truthful for her, as well. So once we had a rough cut, we shared the cut with her. She had notes — and they were all notes that made it deeper. It wasn’t anything that was coming out of the film. She wanted to add more depth to some of the story threads about her sister, Barbara, and others.”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” tells the story of Nan Goldin, the artist, and Nan Goldin, the activist, and how the two sides of her have always been intertwined — as most recently evident through her efforts to bring attention to the opioid crisis and the responsibility of the Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma made and aggressively marketed OxyCodin.
The threads of art and activism provided Poitras with an obvious structure for her film. “I knew that there would be some historical parallels because of her work that she did during the AIDS crisis and now the overdose crisis. I knew that there would be a convergence of those two historical moments in the film at the very beginning,” she said.
Establishing trust was also crucial for Wilmont, whose documentary, “A House Made of Splinters,” takes place inside a shelter in Ukraine that temporarily houses children while the state decides if their parents are fit to retain custody. It follows the heartbreaking stories of several children caught in a system that can’t always protect them from life’s tragedies.
“It shot over the course of roughly 1.5 years. I would go there every second month for about a week, 10 days, maybe, on a very regular basis so that everybody knew [me] and could trust that I will be back,” Wilmont said, calling into the L.A. event by Zoom from Copenhagen, where it was the middle of the night. “I do my own cinematography and my own sound, and I had my brilliant assistant Ukrainian director with me, Azad Safarov, so it was just the two of us. And I think that’s very instrumental in how it was possible to get close to these kids and develop that trust. That’s needed to capture such raw emotional situations, like we did.”
Roher’s film about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny presented numerous unique challenges of its own, from gaining the trust of a public figure who is famously media savvy to grappling with the reality that the documentary would capture some of Navalny’s final moments of freedom. (When he returned to Russia in 2021 after recovering from a state-sanctioned poisoning in Germany, he was immediately arrested at the airport. He has been in prison ever since.)
And then, last year, the stakes became even higher when Russia invaded Ukraine. “If they’re launching this war, why don’t they just rip off the Band-Aid and take out all of their adversaries at the same time? It’d be very easy for them to murder Navalny. He is in the custody of the same man who tried to murder him once already,” Roher said. “And so then it became a question of whether or not releasing the film would help at all. And we decided that if we can keep his name in the global consciousness, even a small amount — 5%, 10% — just a little bit of exposure, maybe that will dissuade the regime from murdering him. Maybe, as I like to call it, the pain-in-the-ass index of killing him in prison will be a little bit too high. And instead of killing him, they’ll say, ‘We’ll just torture him, we’ll just let him languish.’”