TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series got a healthy dose of reality on Tuesday, kicking off a two-day series on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature.
The non-fiction entries were represented by their filmmakers on a panel held at LA’s Landmark Theaters, moderated by TheWrap Editor in Chief Sharon Waxman, featuring “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado with “The Salt of The Earth,” Rory Kennedy for “Last Days in Vietnam” and Charlie Siskel for “Finding Vivian Maier.”
Screened first was “Citizenfour,” the documentary about the worldwide scandal over National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“What we tried to do was stay true to that material,” Poitras said of her exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Snowden’s days holed up in a Hong Kong hotel bracing for the consequences of disseminating classified documents, most of them detailing the access the NSA has to private citizen information like cell phone records.
“I tried to not pay too much attention to what was on the front page of any papers … I come from a place of storytelling so it was, ‘OK, who is the person? Why did they take the risk they took?’ To me that’s a universal question. The movie is about surveillance and Edward Snowden, but it’s also about what people do when they’re faced with danger.”
The film offers a riveting look at what Poitras had to personally risk in sharing Snowden’s story with the world — like the possibility of interrogation at the border whenever she attempts to re-enter the United States.
“I’m not having any problems now at the border, which I have had in the past, being stopped … it’s not worth harrasing me, if the government was going to do anything I’d get a subpoena,” Poitras said.
That doesn’t mean the international community didn’t have a response.
“The U.K. is still a question mark for me,” she said, mentioning the nine-hour detainment of the boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, a major supporting character in the documentary, at London’s Heathrow International Airport.
“David Miranda was detained under the Terrorist Act, David is Glenn Greenwald’s partner, there’s an ongoing investigation and it’s sort a conspiracy terrorism theory that’s targeting all the journalists who worked on the case. It’s not been resolved,” she said.
Another story with international ties is “Last Days of Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s look at the historic and angst-ridden evacuation of American armed forces and South Vietnamese allies from the war torn area in 1975.
“I come from a political family and I was always invested in trying to impact social change,” Rory, daughter of Ethel and the late Robert Kennedy, said.
“For me it initially came from an advocacy perspective, and I think over the years I’ve grown to love the art of storytelling. But my work does a range of both showing and exposing issues from the perspective of people who are living it on the front lines and also hopefully celebrating great stories.”
Ribeiro Salgado told a very personal story in “The Salt of The Earth”: that of his father, Sebastiao Salgado, a dogged photographer who has traveled the world documenting humanity in industrial and native forms. The elder Salgado, however, spent much of his young son’s childhood away on assignment, leaving Ribeiro with years of resent.
“We could barely speak to each other, we had this terrible relationship. Things weren’t happening at all between us for a long time,” Ribeiro said of starting the film in 2009. “I guess I [held] a grudge for him traveling so much.”
The two men reconnected when Ribeiro showed his father some of the initial still photographs from the documentary.
“It was a very profound moment when he got to first see my gaze on him … you could see his eyes were getting wet,” Ribeiro said.
Another photographer’s story unfolds in “Finding Vivian Maier,” about the nanny turned street portrait master. Siskel talked about the identity struggles he imagined for Maier, working as a domestic help in Chicago’s upper class North Shore neighborhood.
“I could recognize that she must have felt like an odd duck in that town, a very kind of … judgmental, homogeneous, suburban environment and here she was, a brilliant artist. She couldn’t wait to get into the city to take her pictures and she’d bring the kids! She may not have been the greatest nanny in the world, but she was certainly a brilliant photographer,” he said.