The first Oscars for documentary were in 1941: special awards to Rey Scott for “Kukan” (described as “a film record of China’s struggles”) and to the British Ministry of Information for “Target for Tonight” (about the Royal Air Force). Docus became a category in 1943 and for many years, a documentary was the broccoli of the film world: Good for you, but no fun.
Things have changed, thanks to many greats who combined storytelling with urgency and heart. In recent years, docs are becoming mainstream, thanks to streaming services and COVID, which made lockdown families look for new entertainment.
This year there is an overabundance of worthy films for Oscar consideration; however, front-runners are hard to predict.
The mainstream media has given a lot of attention to “Summer of Soul,” “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” “Flee,” “The Rescue,” “Ascension” (about modern China), “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis” (about COVID), and to docus about familiar faces like “Julia” (about Julia Child), “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “Mayor Pete” “Becoming Cousteau,” and “Velvet Underground.” But the docu branch doesn’t always vote for “popular” films, which always makes this one of the most interesting races.
As usual, there are underdogs that merit attention. They include the indie “45 Days: The Fight for a Nation,” Netflix’s China-themed “Found” and Amazon’s “My Name is Pauli Murray.” Each illuminates different facets and advantages of documentaries: There is one that’s overtly political, one that’s apolitical and personal, and another that sees America’s politics through the history of one woman.
My Name Is Pauli Murray
Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed “RBG” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and this year’s “Julia.” Their other docu this year, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” addresses a woman (1910-1985) who is not a household name but is pivotal to many 20th century changes.
Murray defied Southern bus segregation 15 years before Rosa Parks. She attempted to integrate whites-only restaurants a decade before the lunch-counter protests in the 1950s. As a Rutgers professor says in the docu, students ask “Why didn’t we know about Pauli Murray?”
Murray is “undiscovered” because she wasn’t present for headline-grabbing incidents; instead, she was laying the groundwork for them.
When Ginsburg was writing the first gender-equality brief before the Supreme Court, she credited Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon for the idea of using the 14th Amendment to fight for equal rights for women.
Cohen says, “We talk about an idea whose time has come. Pauli had a lot of ideas whose time had not yet come.”
The directors, along with producer Talleah Bridges McMahon, wrangled Murray’s 141 boxes of papers, 800 photos, and dozens of hours of audiotapes. Cohen tells Variety that uncovering facets of Murray’s life was “revelation after revelation. It was a challenge because there is so much. This is a story of someone who had a huge life, with so much that is worthy of examination.”
Aside from making legal, academic and religious breakthroughs, Murray described herself as “a girl who should have been a boy.”
Murray’s biographer Rosalind Rosenberg, interviewed on camera, says “her sense of in-between-ness made her increasingly critical of boundaries.”
West adds, “Pauli was a nonbinary person at a time that wasn’t discussed; there was no language for it, no support. That’s so poignant especially from a 2021 perspective.”
The docu raises the question: Are there other Pauli Murrays waiting to be discovered?
West nods, “History has a lot of gaps and we have blinders about a lot of our history; there are people who made significant contributions and events that we pushed aside. I think Pauli’s story is part of a much larger issue of looking at our history again.”
My Name is Pauli Murray is available on Amazon Prime and in the Academy Screening Room.
45 Days: The Fight for a Nation
Ever since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the New York Times has run frequent stories about heartbroken families there. It seems like propaganda, trying to say Biden and the U.S. military were hasty and thoughtless (which is not true). The Times stories are offensive for another reason: They imply that Americans should only be concerned with the suffering in one or two countries overseas.
Strongly countering this POV is director Emile Ghessen’s docu “45 Days: The Fight for a Nation,” which shows the ongoing problems since the late-2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Ghessen learned of the war when “I saw a report on the news; then the news suddenly dried up.”
Producer Asko Akopyan tells Variety, “No one covered this war, no one cared about it.”
Ghessen went to investigate and saw “unfair, imbalanced fighting,” saying Azerbaijani forces were backed by Turkey. His film is advocacy journalism, shining a light on the little-reported war and its aftermath. He tells Variety that the tension is “ongoing.”
Locals interviewed in the film say the “international community” has let them down; as one says, “our only friend at the moment is Russia.”
Why should anyone care? First, the film clearly shows that people there are suffering. A lot. Second, it offers a peek into the future.
A military expert says the use of drones in the 44-day war is the shape of things to come: “This is going to change the way wars are fought: unmanned aircrafts are the future and soldiers are paying the heavy price.”
However, Ghessen says of his film, “We wanted it to be about people, not the politics, not the war. So many countries are unstable at the moment, people can relate to all this.”
This is the first docu produced by Akopyan, after many narrative films. He says, “For Armenians, this film is a call to action to regroup and rebuild. But I really want non-Armenian people to watch it. It’s about human lives. I hope people can take it not as a war documentary but as a humanization film and I hope nothing like this happens again to any group.”
“45 Days” is wrapping a one-week theatrical Nov. 26-Dec 2 at Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood. After that, there will be an online 10-day rental period on Vimeo. And it’s available in the Academy Screening Room.
Netflix’s “Found” centers on three U.S. high-school girls who meet online. All were born in China and given up for adoption thanks to China’s one-child rule, 1979-2015, in which 150,000 girls were adopted in other countries. The “Found” trio discovers through DNA tests that they are cousins.
Amanda Lipitz directed the film and was one of three producers, along with Anita Gou and Jane Zheng. Lipitz started filming her niece in 2017 and incorporated her online friends. When it looked like the three girls and their families might go to China to investigate, producer Gou came onboard, with her know-how of filmmaking and of negotiating with China.
Gou tells Variety, “I had just come back from China and filming ‘The Farewell,’ and my team in China and I could provide what Amanda needed. And this story was very important to me.”
The film depicts the three girls — Lily Bolka, Chloe Lipitz, Sadie Mangelsdorf — and their daily lives in the U.S. but the heart of the film is their trip to China.
They’re warned that finding their birth parents is an uphill struggle; paper trails were scarce. So they relied on the “aunties” or “nannies” who took care of the three babies (and many, many others), as they waited 13-15 months for an adoption to come through.
The film isn’t overtly political: The one-child policy isn’t stressed. But the film arrives at a time when Forbes magazine reports that Anti-Asian hate speech has climbed by 1,662% in the past year.
As Gou says, its timing is also interesting since the film urges audiences to take young women seriously, an attitude that pop-culture mainstream often ignores.
While many films about adoption focus on reunions of birth parents and children, “Found” takes a different angle by showcasing the emotional toll on the nannies and on couples who were forced to give up children.
Says Gou, “We worked with My China Roots, which is one of many organization that specializes in root-tracing. So in a way we are celebrating Chinese cultural heritage.”
My China Roots guide Liu Hao observes in the film: “When you are listening to other people’s stories and what they have been through, you understand a lot of things you didn’t know you would understand before.”
That simple sentence sums up the goal of nearly every documentary this year.
“Found” is airing on Netflix and is available for viewing in the Academy Screening Room.
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