Thursday, December 6, 2012

Documentaries and the Oscar, some I have seen

Fifteen documentary features will advance in the Oscar nomination process. Two of those have had a screening at the Sie Film Center, though interestingly not as part of the Starz Denver Film Festival.

Ethel, about the wife of Robert Kennedy screened in March as part of the Women+ Film series. Detropia had a regular run in October. Both of these films certainly deserve making the short list for an Oscar.

The process for being nominated for an Oscar is a cumbersome one for documentaries. The Academy requires, among other criteria, that the film have a commercial run of at least one week in both Los Angeles and Manhattan, prior to December 31. Many worthy documentaries cannot meet this requirement and in the past have been ineligible. The International Documentary Association has developed a somewhat inelegant workaround, allowing more documentaries to at least submit this year.

The fifteen film short list was pared by the Documentary Branch of the Academy from an initial submission of 126 films. A second round of voting by the Branch will come up with the five nominees.

As I noted in my review, Detropia is visually stunning and tells its story in a moving fashion.

Ethel is done in more conventional documentary style. It was made by Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Ethel and Robert. Ethel was pregnant with her at the time Robert was killed, and Rory was born six months after his death.

The film consists of commentary and interviews with the surviving Kennedy children and Ethel herself. Rory provides the narration and does the interviews. It tracks Ethel from the time she met the Kennedy clan, eventually married Robert and raised eleven children after her husbands death. It is funny and bittersweet and very moving to those of us of the generation that revered Bobby and Jack and what they stood for. But more than that, this is a portrait of a remarkable woman.

In addition to Ethel and Detropia, I have seen one other film from the list of fifteen: Searching for Sugarman.

This is an interesting film. It deals with a search or really an investigation by two South Africans, Stephen Segerman (called Sugarman by friends – more about that later) and music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out what happened to an American Folk Singer from the early 70s, Rodriguez: did he really die by committing suicide on stage? The tone of his songs was often bleak (he was living in Detroit and the times were bleak) and so some of those who heard them could easily believe that he would commit suicide.

Rodriguez was a somewhat mysterious singer/songwriter who produced two albums, one in 1970 and another in 1971 and then disappeared. And the film is really more about developing a 'picture' of Rodriguez than it is about the search itself – that is also why it is a better film.

Saying, he disappeared is almost a misstateent. His albums did not sell in the United States and he was basically unknown, so in point of fact he never really appeared in order to disappear. The albums were released by Sussex Records (now out of business) and in December of 1971, they dropped him – two weeks before Christmas. (Ironically, one of the songs on the last album talks about being fired two weeks before Christmas.)

The individuals who heard him, produced the songs and signed him originally were dumbfounded that he did not become a megastar on the order of Bob Dylan – many of those persons are interviewed in the film.

However, through a strange set of circumstances (and without him knowing it) he developed a huge fan base in South Africa. A young American woman, visiting in South Africa brought with her the first album. Segerman, heard it and fell in love with it. The album, or its successor was not available in South Africa at the time, so Segerman started making cassette copies and passing them on to friends. From this grew the fan base and eventually a couple of South African record companies obtained the South African rights to distribute the album and Rodriguez' following in the country grew to giant proportions.

In the middle 90s, Segerman decided he wanted to find out what had actually happened to Rodriguez. Why wasn't he still recording, why wasn't he a hit in the US, did he really commit suicide? Teaming up with Strydom, he created a website, with a drawing of Rodriquez on a milk carton. It is a this point, halfway through the film that we actually first hear about the search and how it was conducted.

Finally there is a hit on the website. Segerman gets an email from a woman in America, who states that not only is Rodriguez not dead, he is her father.

Segerman and Strydom meet Rodriguez – he is working as he always has as a blue-collar, working-class laborer doing demolition in Detroit and his name is actually Sixto Rodriguez. However, they arrange for him to go to South Africa for a series of concerts – sold out concerts with thousands of screaming fans. It is surreal.

As I note above this is less about the actual search than introducing us to this man and letting us hear his music - he will be touring in 2013.

I am not certain how this will play with Academy voters or if it will actually make the final five nominees, but it is a fascinating story and that is what makes it, rather than the aesthetic of the filmmaking.

The documentary is a Swedish/British production by Malik BendJelloul.

Oh and Sugarman? Early in the film Segerman notes that he was indeed called Sugarman by friends and he sort of associtated that with the fact that Rodriguez had a song on his first album titled Sugarman.

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