Oscar Contenders Get Personal About Their Documentaries
Documentary filmmakers Morgan Neville (l) and Sandi Tan on stage at the Hollywood Roosevelt for the AFI Fest's Doc. Roundtable discussion (photo by Timothy Norris/courtesy of AFI).
AFI Fest session includes 8 filmmakers whose docs have been submitted for Academy Award consideration
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For director Rudy Valdez, the impact that his directing The Sentence has had on him only became fully evident long after the project was wrapped and hit the festival circuit. In some respects he didn’t have the luxury of being impacted during the nearly 10 years he chronicled the unjustly harsh sentencing and incarceration of his sister, the toll on her family--particularly her three daughters--and her eventual release when granted clemency in 2016 by President Obama.

Out of necessity, Valdez found himself keeping a distance from his family in order to preserve his role as a documentary filmmaker--even though what was happening in front of his camera was intensely personal and familial. This hit him most poignantly when he was filming his father on camera. It was one of the few times he had ever seen his dad cry.

Valdez recalled his initial instinct was to “put down the camera, hug him, tell him it’s going to be okay.” But an inner voice stopped him, insisting that he instead hold his shot, otherwise he would undermine what he had set out to do--to make a documentary with a purpose to promote the greater good. Valdez said he maintained that self-restraint for some nine-and-a-half years, creating a barrier between himself and his family. “I didn’t spend time with my family while they were having a bad time.”

He’s now trying to make up for that lost time as he deals with the impact of having done his job as a documentarian but not as much as he would have liked to as a family member.

Produced by Park Pictures Features, a sister company to commercial production house Park Pictures, The Sentence won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where HBO acquired TV and digital distribution rights to the documentary. (Valdez is now on the Park Pictures’ roster for spots and branded content.)

Valdez opened up about the emotional impact that his feature directorial debut, The Sentence, had on him during an AFI panel discussion last week, moderated by Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang. Among the nine filmmaker panelists were eight directors, including Valdez, whose documentaries are among the 166 films officially submitted for Best Feature Documentary Oscar consideration this awards season. The other seven were: Alexis Bloom who helmed Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes; Talal Derki, who directed Of Fathers and Sons; Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi who teamed with Jimmy Chin to direct Free Solo; RaMell Ross who made Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Sandi Tan, the filmmaker behind Shirkers; Morgan Neville, director of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; and Betsy West, who partnered with Julie Cohen to direct RBG

Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG recently earned Producers Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Pictures.

Shirker, Hale County, Of Fathers and Sons, Free Solo
Like The Sentence for Valdez, Shirkers was intensely personal for filmmaker Tan. And like The Sentence, Shirkers landed acclaim at the 2018 Sundance Fest with Tan receiving the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. Shirkers was also nominated for Best Documentary in the Film Independent Spirit Awards competition. The story in Shirkers dates back to 1992 when Tan and two close friends made an indie film in their home of Singapore. After filming, their director and film teacher Georges Cardona stole the completed footage. When Tan got the footage back 20 years later, she decided to embark on a documentary, Shirkers, about the making of her movie--a personal odyssey in which she delves into exactly what happened. Tan said the project turned her into a “detective” out to “solve the greatest mystery of my life.” Tan said she had to look back on herself as “a crazy 18 year old trying to make this movie.” Tan said she had to “get back inside my head” as a teen, which made Shirkers “a personal story only I knew how to structure.”

Making his directorial debut with Hale County This Morning, This Evening, accomplished photographer Ross looks at the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over the course of five years. The inspired and intimate portraits of a place and its people takes on a lyrical poetic feel, shedding light on the Historic South and race relations. Ross’ feature recently garnered a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary. Yet while critically acclaimed, Hale County This Morning This Evening still faced a quandary in terms of finding an audience, observed Ross, recalling that when meeting with potential distributors he often heard, “We have no idea how to sell your film.”

Thankfully the film is gaining momentum through word of mouth--in person and via social media. The Sentence’s Valdez noted that when attending the Sarasota Film Festival, he ran into an elderly couple who saw Ross’ Hale County. The woman, related Valdez, described Hale County as “amazing,” adding, “I didn’t know I would like that.” This led Valdez to conclude, “Some of these distributors don’t give people enough credit,” not realizing that exposure for a worthwhile film can help it find an audience spanning varied, different walks of life.

Derki returned to his native Syria to make Of Fathers and Sons, living for two years with the family of Abu Osama, focusing primarily on two young boys who are trained to become Jihadi fighters. Of Fathers and Sons also just picked up a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary. It earlier won the World Cinema-Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The wife-and-husband team of Vasarhelyi and Chin chronicled in Free Solo their friend Alex Honnold as he tries to become the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000-foot-high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed a major feat in rock climbing history. Considering Honnold’s quest was being made at great peril, making a documentary about him was, said Vasarhelyi, “scary,” “terrifying” and full of “ethical implications,” with the real possibility that filmmakers could bear witness to his demise. Vasarhelyi related that she and Chin agonized over the decision to proceed with the film but ultimately they were swayed by the inspirational value of Honnold’s story and the extraordinary nature of the potential communal experience for the audience.

Famous figures
The remaining AFI Fest panelists in the Oscar running took on famous subjects--Bloom telling the story of Fox News chieftain Roger Ailes in Divide and Conquer; Neville shedding light on Fred Rogers, the children’s TV host, in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; and West who in tandem with Cohen turned out RBG, which explored the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Bloom noted that Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes was planned and discussed for four years. She embarked on the documentary shortly after Ailes was deposed from Fox News. Since then, the Trump administration took hold with charges of “fake news” and the like. Asked if current events impacted her approach to Divide and Conquer, Bloom said you “have to be aware of what’s going on” but ultimately she had gravitated towards Ailes as a subject because there was something “essential” about his story. That “resonance,” she said, pre-dated the Trump presidency. Current events, she assessed, didn’t alter her course in doing justice to Ailes’ life.

Neville and West said they were drawn to Rogers and Ginsburg, respectively, in large part for the positive dynamic in their stories and personalities. West said of Ginsburg, “at a time of anxiety, divisiveness and polarization,” her approach and philosophy have been “to move beyond anger and to use your brains to get where you want to go.” Ginsburg, noted West, makes an effort to respect while attempting to influence her ideological opposites.

In the same vein, Neville said that Rogers shines even more now in an era of instability and toxicity. Rogers’ devotion to helping kids and his principled nature can prove to be an antidote to today’s times by reclaiming “some sort of moral center” for society at large. Neville recalled that as a kid, he loved Rogers but lost touch with him when he became an adult and parent. But in reintroducing himself to Rogers in recent years, Neville again was moved emotionally and intellectually by the children’s advocate. Neville observed that his decision to make Won’t You Be My Neighbor? had a selfish motivation in that he felt the strong personal “need to spend time with this (Rogers’) voice, follow it and see where it goes.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? too was nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.

As for the alluded to remaining filmmaker panelist, even though his Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI isn’t an Oscar entry this year, Jed Rothstein is no stranger to the Academy Awards. He was nominated for a Best Short Subject Documentary Oscar in 2011 on the strength of Killing in the Name.

This is the third of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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