This story about Oscar documentaries first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
By lots of standards, 2018 was one of the greatest years for nonfiction filmmaking: the first year to have four documentaries top the $10 million mark and 15 make more than $1 million.
In this climate, Oscar voters sifted through the 166 eligible films and chose five films. Two were among the biggest moneymakers: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “Free Solo,” about Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan rock formation without ropes or safety equipment, and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “RBG.”
Two were critically adored debut features: “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” RaMell Ross’ meditative look at the inhabitants of a poor area of Alabama and how blacks are depicted in the media, and Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” which moves from a depiction of the skateboarding culture to examine dark questions about growing up and breaking free from violent family histories.
The final nominee is Talal Derki’s wrenching “Of Fathers and Sons,” which follows the two years he lived in his native Syria pretending to be a jihadist as he filmed a radical who was bringing up his sons to fight and die for al-Qaeda.
TheWrap spoke to all of the nominated directors in a series of interviews.
Documentary filmmaking is a form of journalism, and we’re currently in a time when we see journalism under fire. As a filmmaker, do you feel a special urgency these days?
JULIE COHEN, “RBG” We consider ourselves journalists as well as filmmakers — and right now, as you say, journalism in America is in a perilous situation. But documentary film is one sub-genre that seems to be strengthening, and I think that’s a heartening development. People are open to hearing journalistic stories through this format, and they accept the idea that something can be entertaining and cinematic and also journalistically sound.
ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI, “FREE SOLO” I think people are hungry for truth. In the times that we’re living, things are broken. And documentary filmmakers, who are bound by ethics and are here to tell the truth, are an important voice.
JIMMY CHIN, “FREE SOLO” There’s a certain aspirational aspect to watching movies, and I think people are starting to connect with the idea that beyond superhero movies, there are really inspiring people doing incredible things.
TALAL DERKI, “OF FATHERS AND SONS” I felt that I had to go and make this film. Ideology is capable of brainwashing people, and that is what we must understand. And film can do that.
Given the commercial success of many documentaries last year, is this the golden age of nonfiction filmmaking?
BING LIU, “MINDING THE GAP” If you’re within that bubble of films that do that well, yeah. But it depends on the perspective. Money is still hard to find — I had rejections from every major funder until PBS took a chance on us. There’s a land grab going on now, with a lot of big streamers commissioning new projects, but I don’t know how sustainable it is. We’re probably living in the Iron Age or the Stone Age of documentaries.
VASARHELYI I think it’s twofold. One, all of these films that have done well at the box office are communal experiences — they’re about connection and are meant to be seen sitting next to somebody. And I also think that the sort of investment that has happened in nonfiction has allowed filmmakers to push the boundaries with the quality of their production.
BETSY WEST, “RBG” There are many opportunities now for people to tell stories in documentaries, and it’s pretty exciting. But I think we have to see whether or not it’s a wave. There are a lot of really strong documentaries that I’ve heard about this year, but we’ll have to see how audiences react to them.
RAMELL ROSS, “HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING” I feel like we’re in a golden age of sorts for all lens-based media. And quite naturally, because the documentary genre is such a defined and interesting space, some of it will rise to the top. But if we were to define a genre of people making selfies and talking about what’s going on in their lives, there’d be a golden age of that, too. There are so many platforms, so much content, so many hundreds of thousands of things to watch.
What were the biggest challenges of your film?
LIU First and foremost, finding the motivation to keep going year after year. I had a reason for making the film, which was to answer some of the big questions that had been sort of protruding since I was an adolescent — questions that became clearer to me in my early 20s, questions about growing up and about how family affects that. But as I worked on it and the rejection letters kept piling up, I had to try to keep sane and find the motivation to not give up.
VASARHELYI In our conversations, the question of emotional risk keeps overtaking the one about physical risk. The emotional challenge of living with the fact that our friend Alex could die while we were filming him was a weight our entire team carried for two years. That ethical question gets to the heart of the meaning of the film and why we would do this. But we really believed in Alex, who thinks about his mortality more than anyone.
CHIN I’ve been filming and climbing with Alex for more than 10 years, and working in this space for 20. So the logistics of it, while complex, were within my wheelhouse. It was more managing the space around Alex and protecting him from the external pressure of the production as much as possible.
DERKI The hardest thing for me was being there from beginning to end, capturing the lives and the education of these kids who go from being shy children to jihadists. And I was in fear all the time. I was directing and writing this film for two-and-a-half years, but I was also acting — I was playing a role where there was no possibility of a single mistake, because if they found out who I was they would kill me. That made me feel exhausted spiritually, because day by day playing that role became more complicated.
COHEN For us, the big challenges were to take what is in effect an extremely serious, intellectual subject matter — constitutional law and how it can be used to increase equal rights — and make it a human story and a romance with elements of inspiration and comedy. We had to make people grapple with the serious issues at the core of the film, but also have an experience like you want to have when you go to the movies.
ROSS I think the biggest challenge for me was having the film be accessible in the broadest sense. There’s a certain way in which folks are predisposed to approach installation or things that don’t have narrative or clearly defined characters. The editing team was tasked with creating meaning in the film, creating space for someone to enter it and complete the film, but also allowing the film to be built in a way that teaches a person not to have certain expectations.
Do you feel yourself pushing against traditional documentary forms?
LIU Yes and no. In many ways, “Minding the Gap” is very traditional, but I was not really thinking of documentary norms or tradition or rules. We thought about this as a story, and that’s what we paid heed to: “What are the character’s motivations, where is this character’s journey headed, how do we build toward that, how do we leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the audience?”
Those are the things people think about in the fiction world. But we were in the documentary medium, and we didn’t have all the vérité scenes we wanted, so we had to set up things and prop up the story with traditional documentary devices like sound bites and interviews.
ROSS I wasn’t explicitly thinking that I was going to disrupt traditional forms. I was more trying to find solutions or strategies to issues that kept coming up. I shot for five years, but I made my first cut five months in and was really disappointed in it. It seemed to participate in a way of depicting the black experience that was drawing from the misrepresentations of the past, not bringing a new angle to it.
So I went back to the footage and started pulling out moments that were metaphorical and beautiful and poetic, and that became the template of what “Hale County” could be — a film of moments, of the spontaneous and whimsical, not a film of scenes.
DERKI The way I do documentaries is closer to fiction than journalism. I started in fiction films, and the way I like to structure a story starts from fiction. At the end of the day, I am a storyteller, and my tools might be the tools of fiction or of nonfiction.
Were you surprised that the Academy didn’t nominate the year’s top-grossing doc, Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
VASARHELYI I was shocked. I think it’s an exquisite, important film, and Morgan is a dear friend of ours. I think it must have had to do with the weighted ballot. I’m proud of our branch, because these are incredible films, and our category has three female directors, four people of color, three Asians… But I was shocked.
To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar magazine, click here.