Guild Awards Preview: Documentaries
Liz Garbus, director of "Becoming Cousteau" (photo by Henny Garfunkel)
Shedding light on "The Rescue," "The First Wave" and "Becoming Cousteau"

The guild awards season is on the horizon. And among the marquee competitions is the DGA Awards within which lurks a hot documentary race. The contenders include a mix that runs the gamut from first-time feature documentarians to seasoned filmmakers, a number of whom have been past DGA nominees and/or winners. 

Prime examples of first-time solo directors of a feature documentary--who have already registered on the current awards show circuit--are: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson for Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu); Jessica Beshir for Faya Dayi (Janus Films) and Jessica Kingdon for Ascension (MTV Documentary Films). 

There’s also a hybrid new/veteran director in the discussion--lauded narrative filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) who’s made an auspicious documentary directorial debut with The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+).

The Velvet Underground was recently nominated for Best Music Documentary at the IDA Documentary Awards. Up for that same honor is Summer of Soul, one of four IDA noms it received, the others spanning Best Feature Documentary, Best Director and Best Editing. 
Meanwhile Ascension tied with Summer of Soul for the most nominations, six, in the Critics Choice Documentary Awards. Summer of Soul wound up winning all six of the categories in which it received a nod--for Best Documentary Feature, as well as Best First Documentary Feature, Editing, Archival Documentary, Music Documentary, and attaining a tie for Best Director (with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin for The Rescue).

Summer of Soul topped the Critics Choice Best First Documentary Feature category which also included Faya Dayi, The Velvet Underground, Ascension, and Kristine Stolaskis’ Pray Away (Netflix).

On the other end of the documentary experience continuum are the likes of: Vasarhelyi and  Chin, Oscar winners and DGA nominees for Free Solo in 2019, who are now being recognized for The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films); Julie Cohen and Betsy West, Oscar and DGA nominees in 2019 for RBG and now in the running for My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios) and Julia (CNN Films); Liz Garbus, Oscar and DGA-nominated for What Happened, Miss Simone? in 2016 and today once again in the awards season conversation for Becoming Cousteau (National Geographic and Disney+); Orlando von Einsiedel, Oscar and DGA-nominated for Virunga in 2015 (and winner of the Best Documentary Oscar for White Helmets in 2017) who now is generating buzz for heading a collective of filmmakers behind Convergence: Courage In A Crisis (Netflix); and Matthew Heineman, an Oscar nominee and DGA winner for Cartel Land in 2016 (and two years later winning his second DGA Award for City of Ghosts), who once more is front and center in the awards landscape for The First Wave (National Geographic, Neon), which last month won the IDA’s coveted Pare Lorentz Award.

Matthew Heineman
Whereas Haynes diversified from narrative features to make his first documentary, Heineman went the opposite route. A two-time DGA nominee as a documentarian, Heineman moved into narrative film with A Private War which in 2019 earned him a third DGA nomination--for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film. Heineman thus joined Martin Scorsese as the only directors ever to be nominated for both narrative and documentary DGA Awards. A Private War starred Rosamund Pike as the late great war correspondent Marie Colvin.

Heineman’s recently released documentary The First Wave takes us inside Long Island Jewish Medical Center, one of NY’s hardest hit hospitals, during the harrowing first four months of the pandemic. Heneiman’s signature approach of character-driven cinema verite casts light on the everyday heroes at the epicenter of COVID-19, including Dr. Nathalie Dougé and ICU nurse Kellie Wunsch who put their own lives at risk to save the lives of others. The patients and their families are also heroic as Heineman introduces us to COVID-stricken Ahmed Ellis and Brussels Jabon who are fighting to survive.

Finding these people to tell their stories, serving as a microcosm through which audiences could view the emotional and societal impacts of the pandemic, was key. “People don’t like talking about casting for documentaries. But that is what happens. They are the storytellers,” said Heineman who cited Dr. Dougé as an example, willing to share what she was going through, possessing an electric personality and whose caring shone through despite the horror of it all.

“This was the most terrifying film I’ve ever made on almost every level--logistically, emotionally, physically,” affirmed Heineman. “What drove us every single day was the amazing fortitude, courage, love and humanity that we witnessed. Yet I didn’t go to bed feeling sad. Instead I felt deeply inspired. Those two realities can co-exist--fear and danger, the terror of it all, along with perseverance, love and humanity.” To hear Heineman describe The First Wave as “the most terrifying film” he’s taken on carries considerable weight given that he received the International Documentary Association’s Courage Under Fire Award in 2015 for Cartel Land, a remarkable and startling film exposing the world of vigilante groups in Mexico and its border towns, and their formidable opponent, the drug cartels. 

Heineman explained that in conflict zones around the world, including in Cartel Land, there were times when you could detach yourself, take a breather. But for The First Wave, the feelings of concern were constant. He explained. “In The First Wave, we were living what we were documenting. There was no sort of turning things off. During those early months, even when we weren’t filming, we felt danger--just going to get groceries. Every human being was living with uncertainty that didn’t go away as people were getting sick and dying. Isolation, lack of human connection all obviously existed for us as a film crew.”

Heineman said that “first and foremost” on his mind was “the safety of our crew and our participants. We knew so little about the disease at that time, how it was transmitted. It was terrifying in those early days. Every single aspect of making a documentary carried a potential weapon that could kill us--things as mundane as putting a camera down on a counter, walking into someone’s home. All these things had ramifications that you had to figure out. This was a full-on experience that lasted 24/7 for months.”

Sharing what was going on in the hospitals, what frontline workers, the patients, and the families of those frontline workers and patients were going through is profoundly important--and the world might have been better served if these realities were fully evident from the outset. Heineman observed, “One of the greatest tragedies of COVID is that this pandemic that could have brought the country together but instead it further divided us. It didn’t have to happen this way. We as an American public were so shielded from the realities happening in hospitals. Looking back at Vietnam, the images of causalities, cities being bombed helped to inform public discourse. Here in the early weeks of COVID we didn’t have all the images which is what allowed it to be politicized, leading to disinformation and distrust of basic science and facts.”

Heineman described The First Wave as being about so much more than COVID--including the disproportionate impact on people of color, the related topic of national reckoning over racism after the killing of George Floyd, the power of human connection, the experiences of trauma and isolation, and quite simply a love letter to New York City. If pressed, though, to distill the film to what resonated most for him, Heineman shared that it would be “how human beings come together in the face of crisis,” as evident from what we saw from the likes of Dr. Dougé, nurse Wunsch, patients Ellis and Jabon. 

Vasarhelyi and Chin
From the summit in their 2019 Oscar-winning Free Solo to the depths of a flooded subterranean cave in The Rescue--which opened theatrically in October--documentarians Vasarhelyi and Chin have navigated a wide range of filmmaking terrain. But in covering what appears to be new ground this time around, there are some familiar themes which connect the two narratives as masterfully told by the wife-and-husband directing team--one being a story which suspends us alongside free solo rock climber Alex Honnold on the Yosemite granite monolith of El Capitan while the other retraces the rescue of the youth soccer team from Northern Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave in 2018, detailing the miraculous work of an international group of elite cave divers and members of the Thai Navy Seals.

Chin touched upon the parallels, observing, “These are very obscure, what I would call lifestyle sports (alpine climbing and underwater cave diving). These aren’t things you can dabble in. Lives are constructed around these lifestyles--and the spaces of exploration are extraordinary. There’s not a lot of room for error. It takes a certain type of personality and mind that enjoys connecting with these high stakes. Similarities exist among people who are seeking a very deep experience.”

Both stories also reflect that human will and sense of purpose can help achieve the seemingly impossible, noted Vasarhelyi.

Still, while there are similarities, a major difference resided in how to go about telling each story. While Free Solo entailed death defying photography, there was no event to shoot for The Rescue. Instead Chin and Vasarhelyi had to track down footage--including volumes of news coverage from outside the cave with very little from within--and somehow cobble together and do justice to a compelling real-life tale that captivated the world but could not be clearly seen as the rescue took place in pitch-black waters.

Chin related that Vasarhelyi was persistent, for example, in her efforts to access Thai Navy Seal footage--a time consuming quest that had her meeting virtually, often via Zoom, with the powers that be over an extended stretch but to no avail. It wasn’t until she went to an admiral’s house, knocked on the door and connected face to face that permission was granted for her and Chin to use this invaluable footage.

The pandemic also took its toll on the process. Not being able to spend much in-person time with the participants, having to rely on virtual encounters precluded the happy discoveries that could normally be made during the course of casual conversations or over a lunch or dinner. Without those kind of opportunities, it became a more difficult proposition to get to know somebody, to establish a trust and rapport.

Nonetheless, Vasarhelyi and Chin did just that, connecting well enough to shed light on the rescuers in particular. Consider John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, a pair of middle-aged British underwater cave diver enthusiasts whose expertise made them integral to getting a rescue attempt off the ground. The highly trained Navy Seals could not perform in the dark cave depths at the level of these weekend civilian hobbyists who had years of experience. The Rescue helps us gain insights into Volanthen and Stanton, two unassuming men who share a love of going it alone in muddy, dark, underwater recesses. Their loner orientation, they acknowledge, was born in part by their lack of success in team sports as youths. While most would panic in dark isolation, they each seem to find a sense of peace, solace and refuge in this environment. 

Vasarhelyi shared that she still gets emotional when discussing the story. “It’s raw for me,” she shared, citing “the absolute morality” of the story, an affirmation of the idea that “you can be your best self.” The Navy Seals, the divers, she observed, “only had everything to lose by participating.” But they rose to the challenge, embraced the idea of being their best selves, to make selfless decisions. She hopes that this carries lessons for us all, including in how we respond to the COVID pandemic. 

Vasarhelyi added that the story of The Rescue was one of “people coming together and achieving the impossible.” It reflects how if we all just unite, things can be better. For this rescue mission some 5,000 people, a diverse cross-section of humanity, came together for the greater good. “When you cooperate, you can achieve,” she concluded.

Liz Garbus
In making Becoming Cousteau, Liz Garbus found a kindred filmmaking spirit in Jacques Cousteau, the late, great explorer known for shedding light on the underwater universe. Cousteau was also well ahead of his time with his dedication to raising awareness of the pressing need to protect our oceans from climate change.

While Garbus has two Oscar nominations--for The Farm: Angola, USA and the aforementioned What Happened Miss Simone?--Cousteau is a three-time Oscar winner for the feature documentary The Silent World in 1957, which he and Louis Malle directed; the live-action short The Golden Fish in 1960, which Cousteau produced; and World Without Sun in 1965, a Cousteau directed feature doc.

Garbus strongly identified with what she described as Cousteau’s “desire to push boundaries” while continuing “to innovate and expand his filmmaking language.” Additionally Cousteau did some home movies over the years, capturing personal moments of significance--which Garbus incorporated into her documentary--including the first time he saw Simone Melchior whom he married in 1937.

Garbus applied her own innate curiosity, akin to that of Cousteau, to unearth insights into the man, his sense of purpose, coping with personal tragedy (the death of a son, oceanographer Philippe, in a seaplane crash) and being sustained by an all-consuming and abiding love of Mother Nature. Garbus also brings to the fore an unsung hero, Cousteau’s first wife, the alluded to Simone Melchior Cousteau, who served in many respects as the co-captain of the Calypso, a former Royal Navy mine-sweeper that was converted into a mobile oceanography lab. The ship became a hub of discovery and adventure that contributed significantly to the Cousteau legacy. 

Melchior Cousteau loved the sea but couldn’t follow in her family lineage that included sailors and Naval officers. During that era, such opportunities weren’t open to women. So she wound up marrying into an ocean life, playing a pivotal role in her husband’s exploration and innovation.

Among the challenges faced by Garbus, who began developing the documentary in 2015, was gaining the trust of the Cousteau family. It took years for her to gain approval from the Cousteau Society and his estate for access to much needed archives, key people and other resources. Cousteau’s second wife, Francine Cousteau, and their two children, Pierre Yves and Dianne, are executive producers on Becoming Cousteau. Besides the late Philippe, Jacques Cousteau had another son, Jean-Michel, from his first marriage.

While Cousteau’s TV work--which garnered assorted Emmy nominations, earning a Primetime Award win and induction for him into the Television Academy Hall of Fame--became darker, more stark and serious in his later years, these efforts today are regarded as being on the informed cutting edge as he expressed concern for our environment, noting that many countries seem to believe the myth that the seas are inexhaustible resources. At a famed 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro--in which he was the star attraction among world leaders--Cousteau affirmed that we cannot jeopardize future generations, our children and their children, by ignoring environmental crises, including the impact of climate change.

Fast forward to today with the recently wrapped 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka COP26, in Glasgow and Cousteau’s message takes on even greater urgency. “How ardent he was, how clear his expression of urgency was,” said Garbus. “He talked about throwing blank checks at future generations--that was directed at my generation and we failed. Here we are with more blank checks for our children. To push the metaphor further, Earth cannot withstand all these withdrawals. It is time to replenish.”

Garbus observed that in listening to Cousteau’s words in 1992, he seemed to feel somewhat hopeful that we could preserve and protect our environment. He had faith in our capacity to problem solve and innovate. Now, though, we have drawn much closer to the 11th hour. Cousteau’s warning is even more alarming today and it remains to be seen if his faith will prove well founded. 

Garbus observed that “the future of our species, and the survival of huge swaths of biodiversity on the planet will depend on innovation in the spirit of Cousteau.”


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