Editor’s Note: We are almost at the end of our journey through the Oscar categories as we head to the documentary nominees.
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Trivia: The Look of Silence is the first “sequel” to be nominated in this category (after its predecessor The Act of Killing.
In a year when the Oscars have come under fire for their lack of diversity, they have the potential to somewhat redeem themselves in the nominations for the best documentary of 2015.
A stand-out amongst a startlingly political selection this year, one of the favourites to win is ‘The Look of Silence’, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. The documentary serves as a follow-up and counter-piece to his 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. Both features centre on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, where more than one million supposed ‘communists’ were murdered by vigilante forces, unofficially supported by the government. While The Act of Killing turned its lens on the perpetrators of the genocide, focusing on their unsettling lack of remorse, The Look of Silence gives a voice to the victims. Optometrist Adi, whose brother Ramli was murdered during the genocide, is our guide into the twisted society of modern Indonesia. Here, the culprits of the genocide are still in power, and relay their acts of violence as heroic deeds to the nation’s children. Adi encounters these men as he makes glasses for them, creating tense situations with men who are not accustomed to being confronted with their past crimes. Unnerving and disturbing, the film’s best scenes feature Adi silently watching videotapes of his brother’s murderers re-enact his death with self-indulgent glee. Hopes are up for Oppenheimer’s visionary documentary to this this Sunday, which could redeem The Act of Killing losing its bid for a win when it was nominated two years ago.
The other main contester for the prize is Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia. Leaving a long trail of awards and critical acclaim behind it, it would be a generally accepted, yet safe, choice for the Academy as the winner. Focusing on Amy Winehouse’s turbulent career, Kapadia succeeds in portraying a different side of Winehouse to the audience. Using previously unseen footage and interviews, a careful depiction of her immeasurable talent and tragic addictions merge into a multi-faceted dimension. This gives up perhaps the closest representation of the ‘real’ Amy Winehouse we could ever hope to experience. A stunning and delicate film, it would definitely be deserving of the Oscar, though ‘The Look of Silence’ would be a braver and more revolutionary choice for the prize.
Though these two films will most likely be embroiled in a final duel for the Oscar, the other documentaries are equally worth viewing. Cartel Land, directed by Matthew Heineman, is a pulsating look at the ongoing drug cartel struggles in Southern Mexico and the American South-West. By contrasting two cartel-fighting factions, namely the American vigilantes of Arizona and the Mexican vigilantes of Michoacán, we get a complex view on this seemingly hopeless situation. Heineman himself often gets involved in the shootings between the cartels and the vigilantes, giving the viewer the heart-stopping experience of feeling present in the imminent chaos and violence. Brutal and unforgiving, Cartel Land is a masterful piece of documentary work, though it may not be as creative and ground-breaking as the former two documentaries.
Finally, we have two Netflix documentaries nominated, Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom by Evgeny Afineevsky, and What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus. Afineevsky’s picture revolves around the events unfolding during the winter of 2014 in Ukraine, when peaceful demonstrations spiralled into a violent and vicious bloodbath, orchestrated by the police and President Yanokovych. Most of the film’s footage was filmed during these demonstrations, giving a sense of immediacy. The film struggles to find the fine line between reality and sentimentality for the Euromaidan movement, though when seeing the startling cruelty of the police forces and the dedication of the movement, it is not difficult to realize why they are proud of their achievements. Ending with Yanokovych’s resignation and fleeing into the arms of Putin for safety (not literally unfortunately), the documentary has a sense of a beginning and an ending, which is most likely not realistic in a political situation, though it is satisfying to see on screen.
In many ways similar to Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus tracks the ups and downs of Nina Simone’s life and career. Directed together with Simone’s daughter, the portrayal of the legendary singer is both sensitive and hard-hitting. The feature does not shirk away from Simone’s revolutionary political stances, and does justice to the influence she had on the civil rights movement of the 1960s in America. We often get revealing glimpses into her personal life, including her abusive marriage and severe mental illnesses. Though a well-made and enthralling film, it does not possess the same high level of production as Amy does, and if a musical documentary will win this year, it will most likely not be What Happened, Miss Simone?.
While there is no certainty who will be the winners at the Oscars ceremony this weekend, it is fairly safe to say that either The Look of Silence or Amy will be going home with the trophy. This writer is definitely rooting for Oppenheimer to be standing on that stage, Oscar in hand, this Sunday.