Even with a previously announced shortlist of 15 films on the way to Thursday’s final five nominees, there was still an air of drama around the feature documentary category. Making it through to a nomination were “Citizenfour,” “Last Days In Vietnam,” “Virunga,” “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Salt of the Earth.”
The nominations make for a mix of work, with a flashpoint look at contemporary events, a long-lens pullback on events now becoming part of national history, an exploration of the politics of animal and environmental preservation and two portraits of photographers, one unknown and the other widely celebrated.
The biggest surprise for many was a film not included in the final nominations, Steve James’ portrait of film critic Roger Ebert, “Life Itself.” Among the most notorious Oscar omissions in history was the lack of a nomination in 1995 for James’ “Hoop Dreams,” which was widely championed by no less than Ebert, making today’s lack of a nomination even more notable.
Oddly, the nominated film “Finding Vivian Maier” was co-directed by Charlie Siskel, nephew of Ebert’s former television partner Gene Siskel.
Both Laura Poitras, director of “Citizenfour,” and Rory Kennedy, director of “Last Days In Vietnam,” expressed surprise at the omission of James and his film as well as Jesse Moss’ well-regarded “The Overnighters.”
“It’s an incredible group of films,” said Poitras, reached by phone in Los Angeles, of the nominated films. “But I’ll say that I’m sad there’s a few that aren’t on that list. Obviously Steve James being the biggest surprise to me.”
“Of course I’m really shocked that didn’t make it,” said Kennedy, by phone from Los Angeles, of James’ film. “There were a lot of great films on the shortlist. On some level, it’s a roll of the dice and so I feel lucky to be here.”
"Citizenfour," about whistleblower Edward Snowden and privacy in the internet age, must now be considered the front-runner. Kennedy's "Last Days in Vietnam" explores military exit strategies through the end of the Vietnam War. "Virunga" follows park rangers in the eastern Congo protecting the land and animals.
"Finding Vivian Maier" is a portrait of a previously unknown photographer, while "The Salt of the Earth" is about photographer Sebastiao Salgado.
In a statement, "The Salt of the Earth" co-directors, Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribero Salgado, said "we are especially happy that our subject has received so much attention, that is, both the photography of Sebastiao Salgado, as well as his other life's work, the reforestation of the tropical rain forest.”
Across the board, the documentary filmmakers nominated expressed excitement at the prospect of the Oscars bringing more people to their films, to engage with and continue the conversations they hope to have started.
“When you finish a film, you never know what the route is going to be, and we’re just thrilled that people see the film and do seem to respond to the issues that its about,” said Orlando von Einsiedel, director of “Virunga,” on the phone in Los Angeles.
“You don’t make docs to get rich,” said Siskel, via phone from Los Angeles, “you make documentaries to make stories you feel compelled to tell. So in the end you want people to see your work.”
Follow Mark Olsen at @IndieFocus