There's no Oscar category tougher to predict than documentary feature, but at this point in the year it's clear the academy has an embarrassment of riches to choose from — 145 have been submitted this year. There are no sure things, but here’s a look at just a handful of the contenders.
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened”
Movies have often been the place where dreams come true, but in Lonny Price's “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” getting what you always wanted is more complicated than it sounds. For Price and his fellow cast members, getting cast in a new musical written by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Hal Prince was an almost unimaginable break, more so because they were all in their teens and early 20s. "It’s like a kid who wants to be an astronaut and NASA comes and says, 'Would you like to go to the moon?'" Price, now 57, says. "They were everything to me."
As any Broadway aficionado knows, “Merrily We Roll Along” turned out to be a disaster, closing after 16 performances and sundering Sondheim and Prince's longstanding artistic partnership. But what happened next, especially to the young performers who got everything they'd ever wanted and had it ripped away two weeks later? Price catches up with his fellow cast members 35 years on and finds them scattered to the winds. Some have left theater far behind them, some found success in other fields; one is “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander. But even Alexander, who's won awards and made millions, says that none of his achievements meant as much as he thought they would. And Price, who's since become a prolific stage director specializing in — what else? — Sondheim musicals, concurs.
"Nothing will ever be ‘Merrily,’ because I'll never be 20 again," he says. "I'll never be able to give myself over to something that fully. I think that's a good thing about age. Life is more complicated, and nothing means everything."
“I Am Not Your Negro”
Most people would say that Samuel L. Jackson narrates Raoul Peck's “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is drawn from the writings and public appearances of James Baldwin. But Peck balks at the term, which connotes a straightforward recitation of Baldwin's prose. "That's the worst thing to do," Peck says. "You need to make sure you create a character. It’s not about being Baldwin in a mimicking way, but it’s about being Baldwin with his soul."
The film, produced with the cooperation of Baldwin's estate, presents itself as the completion of his unfinished book, “Remember This House,” which was to address the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. But no sooner has Peck established that framework than he blasts us with images from the 2014 protests against police violence in Ferguson, Mo. Neither Baldwin nor his work will stay confined to the past.
"In the '60s," says Peck, who was born in Haiti, raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and schooled in the U.S. and France, "I would have to read other people's stories to try to find my place in them. Baldwin was probably one of the few authors where I could say they were talking about my way of seeing the world, about my world. I could feel at home." He approached the movie, which he worked on for almost 10 years, as a kind of intellectual biopic, tracing the course of Baldwin's life through the evolution of his ideas. "I wanted to tell the story from inside the head of the writer," he says.
Peck ranges freely through a quarter-century of Baldwin's nonfiction, but no matter how far back he reaches, Baldwin's observations on race and culture are startlingly pertinent, which may serve in turn as a dark commentary on how little has changed since his death in 1987. "You can’t read him as if you’re reading something about the past,” Peck says. “When you're reading it, it's today."
Watching “The War Room,” D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' behind-the-scenes portrait of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, you're struck not only by its insights but its unequaled access; given the micromanagement of contemporary presidential campaigns, it was hard to imagine that cameras will ever get that close to a campaign's backroom deliberations again. Unless one happens to be desperate.
With his political career and public reputation in shambles after having been found texting underage girls, Anthony Weiner needed to rebuild, and Josh Kriegman, who once served as Weiner's chief of staff, convinced him to let a camera crew inside his 2013 run for mayor of New York City. It could have been a stunning comeback story, but the movie Kriegman and his co-director, Elyse Steinberg, ended up with turned out to be more of a Greek tragedy. (Since the film premiered in January, Weiner's further actions have taken the story into the realm of farce.)
"Anthony’s story is very disappointing on some level," Kriegman says. "Here was somebody who really had tremendous talent in politics and who was successful for a reason. There is a Shakespearean quality to the story, this obvious deep flaw of his."
"We wanted it to be about more than just a campaign," Steinberg adds, "to be about where we are in our politics, and how it’s become driven by entertainment and spectacle." Indeed, some of the movie's most startling scenes have nothing to do with Weiner's online infidelities. Watching Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, who is also an aide to and close confidant of Hillary Clinton, roll through fundraising phone calls and crow over convincing their targets to "max out," one has to wonder why that's not the real scandal.
“Fire at Sea”
It's not a judgment to say that Gianfranco Rosi's movies stand in a class of their own, merely a fact. In 2013, his “Sacro GRA” became the first documentary to win the Venice Film Festival's top prize, and in February, his new “Fire at Sea” performed the same feat in Berlin. (The film has also been chosen as Italy's submission for the foreign-language Oscar, although that's not unprecedented, just extremely rare.)
Rosi is grateful for the honors, but for him, highlighting that he won an award usually given to fiction features misses the point. "The difference is not between fiction and nonfiction," he says. "The difference is between being true or false."
“Fire at Sea” was shot on Lampedusa, the tiny island off the coast of Italy that has become a frequent point of entry for Africans seeking entry to Europe. The setting all but forces a political reading, and Rosi draws attention to the dark side of the migration crisis when we see the corpses of people who failed to survive the journey being removed from a crammed fishing vessel. But what struck him was how little impact the tragedies taking place on Lampedusa's shores had on the island's full-time residents. Much of the movie focuses on a young Italian boy named Samuele, whose life goes on with no apparent knowledge of the crisis unfolding around him. "The important thing was changing the point of view," Rosi says. "Lampedusa was always known in relation to the tragedy of migration. It became this empty vacuum with no identity anymore."
“Fire at Sea” may disorient those expecting an issue-driven tract, but Rosi's meticulously composed shots and careful editing allow a different kind of story to unfold, one less preoccupied with facts than a state of being. "We live in a world with so much information, so much detail," Rosi says. In two seconds on our phones, we can know everything. You have to confront yourself with something you don't know. The big thing was to see how little I could show before everything collapses and doesn’t make sense."
A documentary composed of outtakes from other documentaries is a strange choice for an Oscar contender, but there's never been a movie like Kirsten Johnson's “Cameraperson,” the veteran cinematographer's found-footage reflection on her own art. Johnson, whose dozens of titles include “Citizenfour” and “The Invisible War,” specializes in movies about human rights abuses, but even when she's filming the death of an infant in a Nigerian hospital or the victims of Serbian war crimes, she keeps one eye on how the shot looks and not just what it says. When one elderly woman's recollection of the horrors that have befallen her gets too intense, Johnson chips in with a question of her own: "Have you always been such a great dresser?"
"That's something that matters to me," Johnson says. "Where is the color in things?" “Cameraperson's” initial assembly, later nicknamed the "trauma cut," was so full of difficult images that even she found it hard to watch. But in the final version, they're balanced with moments of offhand beauty, whether it's Johnson's hand reaching into the frame to pluck at a stray blade of grass or the simple joy of watching her children play.
Johnson began work on “Cameraperson” not knowing what she was making, and even now, it retains an air of mystery; so much of its meaning lingers in the space between shots, and in Johnson's largely unseen but always felt presence. It poses profound questions about what it means to capture images of other people's lives, and leaves the answers open for viewers to ponder. "What I do know is true about this film is that it came from a very profound need," Johnson says, "and I kept addressing that need until it had an answer."