Why documentary makers do the Oscar dance

The filmmakers behind 'Street Fight,' 'Jesus Camp' and 'My Country, My Country' recall the fun and impact of being nominated

February 25, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Documentaries are the most exciting conversation-starters in contemporary American movies — and when they earn Academy Awards, their influence soars into the stratosphere. Winners like "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "The Cove" have shaped international discussions about human and animal rights. No wonder the Maryland Film Festival gala on March 11 will debate the question: "Are documentary filmmakers the new journalists?"

Documentaries give the Academy a needed dose of gravitas. But how useful or amusing is it for documentary-makers to get nominated? What is it like to go from trouble spots to glitzy tastemaker events?

For answers, we talked with three Oscar-nominated documentary-makers, all set to appear with host Meredith Vieira at the festival gala: Marshall Curry ("Street Fight," nominated 2005), Laura Poitras ("My Country, My Country," 2006) and Rachel Grady ("Jesus Camp," also nominated 2006). What emerged was a fresh picture of Oscar season, rife with humor and good feeling, and sometimes bitter irony.

An Oscar nod can be thrilling for the most politically engaged filmmakers. "Street Fight," about Corey A. Booker's first attempt, in 2002, to become mayor of Newark, N.J., offered a thoughtful and visceral view of campaigns conducted in storefronts and alleyways. Its fledgling auteur, Curry, had a blast going from North Jersey's mean streets to the Kodak Theatre's red carpet.

"It was my first film," Curry said last week, "and I had shot it with no budget, and edited it on a secondhand Macintosh in my apartment." Before it won raves or prizes, he and his wife "planned to rent out a room and a projector and get a bunch of pizzas and have my friends come over and see this project that I'd been slaving over for years." The day it received its Oscar nomination, "it was unbelievable. I had to run to the airport because I was flying to L.A. for the Writers Guild Awards. My phone was going crazy with friends calling. I was so giddy that I left my luggage in the X-ray machine and had to run back from the gate to get it."

Curry had no hope of taking the prize from the front-running "March of the Penguins." But that "actually made it more enjoyable. There was no pressure. A friend sent me a photo she had clipped from People magazine's best-dressed spread, and there's this glamorous shot of Ziyi Zhang, and standing behind her, my wife and I are looking around like a couple of kids who had snuck in."

Poitras said that when "My Country, My Country" was short-listed the next year, Curry was the first to offer her "congratulations and advice." But for Poitras, the experience was more disconcerting. "My Country, My Country" tells the heartbreaking story of an unsung Iraqi hero named Dr. Riyadh, who operates a free clinic, works with the Baghdad Provincial Council, mediates between Iraqis and Americans, and urges fellow Sunnis to participate in Iraq's elections.

The Academy delighted Poitras by nominating two films about Iraqis' lives — the other was James Langley's "Iraq in Fragments," which she called "masterful. At a time when the journalism coming out of Iraq was almost all from a U.S. or military perspective, these nominations raised the profile of documentaries told from Iraqi points of view."

Langley called Poitras after learning both were nominated. They agreed that if one of them won, he or she would make a statement about the war. (They knew it was a long shot; the eventual winner was "An Inconvenient Truth.") Poitras enjoyed the friendship and solidarity of her fellow documentary-makers. Grady and Heidi Ewing were also up that year for "Jesus Camp," and "a lot of people loved each other's work."

Still, for Poitras, "It was very surreal. Not one person in my film could get a visa to come to the awards, though they risked their lives to try to save the political process." Poitras had dedicated herself to chronicling the effects of America's post-9/11 policies. (She followed "My Country, My Country" last year with her equally stunning "The Oath.") "The Oscars took place during a period of incredible escalation in the violence. The Saturday before, 200 people were killed in the streets of Iraq. I felt a profound disconnect between the destruction over there and getting dressed for an awards ceremony here."

What made the event magical and meaningful for Poitras was her guest — her composer, Kadhum Al Sahir, the Iraqi singer-songwriter known as "the Elvis of the Middle East." Al Sahir disappeared from pre-awards festivities to shoot pictures of the empty theater. When a security man demanded his cell phone, which was full of Arabic messages, Poitras feared he would arrest the most popular entertainer in the Arab world. "But he was really nice; he just wanted him to delete the pictures." Al Sahir used his visit to speak out about Iraqi civilian casualties. He even phoned Dr. Riyadh.

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