By Brian Filippelli
Best Documentary Film is the most interesting category from a sociological and political standpoint. What does and doesn’t get nominated–all the way down to what wins–is a telling litmus test for the anxieties in public conscious. The snubs and winners range from crowd-pleasers to hard-hitters. At this years’ 87th Academy Awards, we have politically topical Citizenfour going up against photographer character studies Finding Vivian Maier and The Salf of the Earth, a war retrospective Last Days in Vietnam, and nature preservation in the face of Congo military conflict film Virunga. The notable snubs here include Roger Ebert’s retrospective and tribute Life Itself and the Middle America recession documentary The Overnighters.
The front runner this year is Citizenfour, which profiles on the controversial figure Edward Snowden who released NSA global surveillance documents to the public and subsequently sought political asylum in Russia. The film taps into the topic of privacy amidst our computer and smartphone dependent age. When Citizenfour wins, the 87th Oscars will have made up for the 86th’s crowd-pleasing decision, where the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom about the lives of backup singers won over the politically charged The Act of Killing that shed light on the 1965-66 genocide of 500,000 communist Indonesians (it did win best doc at the 2014 BAFTAs). While critically adored for its honesty, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer also demanded that the United States admit it condoned the killings at the time and even provided names of “dangerous individuals” to the Indonesian Army. This level of moral grey most likely cost The Act of Killing the Oscar win. The well-made 20 Feet from Stardom looked rosy in comparison, but it also did not carry the dark weight of condemnation that could kick up dirt with elderly Oscar voters.
While Citizenfour is deserving of the win, the snub of The Overnighters proves that the Academy Awards are still uncomfortable with morally grey subject matter. Sure, we can all get behind Snowden revealing the NSA’s plans to spy on our every move–nobody wants Big Brother watching. But not everyone can get behind North Dakota pastor Jay Reinke, who housed laborers that traveled to Williston, chasing the oil boom. The Overnighters has no clear right and wrong; it has desperate workers (some of which are sex offenders) trying to survive in the Mid West, where the 2008 recession hit hardest. The battle of the haves and the havenots hits too close to home.
Citizenfour’s inevitable win along with the rest of the Academy Award announcements will be broadcast on ABC starting at 4PM on February 22nd. In preparation for the big night, you can watch most of the documentaries discussed (with the exception of Citizenfour, Last Days in Vietnam, and Salt of the Earth) on home video and demand. Virunga is currently streaming on Netflix. Life Itself is available on iTunes. Finding Vivian Maier is available on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. The Overnighters will be released on home video and demand on Tuesday, February 2nd. And last years’ 20 Feet From Stardom and The Act of Killing are streaming on Netflix as well.
Read more about Life Itself’s snub at The Hollywood Reporter.