Producer Profile: Oscar Documentary Magic

An Inspiration for the Documentarian in All of Us

Videomaker was invited to attend an exclusive Academy Awards reception sponsored by the International Documentary Association. The IDA annually honors the documentarians that have traversed that long lonely road to the Academy Awards. These producers make it to the top in their field with compelling images and solid storytelling. We spoke with a few of these documentarians about the making of their movies and some of the conflict and obstacles they encountered along the way.

Struggle and Toil

Documentary work is not for the timid. Documakers don’t go into this field for the money, but because they feel impassioned and compelled to tell a story. Their struggle is very real, worthy of a documentary itself. Michael Moore, for instance, producer of the film Sicko, about the failing health care insurance system in America, ironically battled to obtain insurance for his movie. Without insurance, most movie studios won’t produce a movie, and most distributors will refuse to release it. This is where the IDA steps in, working as a portal to help documentarians get their movies financed, insured and nurtured and offering assistance with fair use and copyright legalities. Moore gave a passionate, energetic and humble speech at the reception, praising the hard work of the other documentarians and expressing his desire to help them in their continuing fight to get their voices heard.


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POV: The Iraq War

Interestingly, this year there were several movies centered on the war in Iraq, and each was focused on a different point of view. This year’s winner of the Best Feature Documentary was Taxi to the Dark Side, produced by Alex Gibney and Eva Orner. The movie looks at the dark side of torture, focusing on one detainee who died in custody. Gibney said his late father, a Navy interrogator, inspired him to dig deeper into this story. The other three war-related movies were Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, by Richard E. Robbins; No End in Sight, by Charles Ferguson and Audrey Maars; and short subject nominee, Sari’s Mother, by James Longley.

No End in Sight looks back at acts that led up to the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the events that followed. The insiders interviewed were high in the decision-making process and had some insightful comments on the cause and effect of where we are today.

Sari’s Mother focuses on an individual Iraqi’s drama, spotlighting a mother’s effort to find help for her AIDs-afflicted son. Longley had to leave this story on the cutting-room floor in making his 2006-nominated Feature Documentary, Iraq in Fragments. We spoke about the need to kill favorite scenes in order to stay tight, but how he was able to revive this story as a short due to good media management.

Operation Homecoming‘s POV was very different, focusing on letters written home by Americans soldiers. Robbins said he was amazed at how the ordinary soldiers become eloquent scribes while writing in the war-torn trenches.

Short and Sweet

First-time Academy nominees Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth took home the Best Documentary Short Subject gold statue for Freeheld, a story about a policewoman whose dying wish was to transfer her pension to her same-sex partner. They proved that you can fight City Hall, and the movie helped changed the laws in their tiny town. This movie was only 38 minutes long, affirming that you can tell a story cleanly, clearly and concisely and still have a powerful emotional impact.

Crowns, Dance and Recycled Film

Other nominations were: La Corona (The Crown), about a beauty contest in a Colombian women’s prison; War/Dance, about a children’s dance contest in war-torn Uganda; and Salim Baba, about a man in a small Indian village who finds random scraps of film in a studio’s trash, then splices them together with tape and scissors and shows his movie to the village children. It makes no sense at all, but the kids love it. Now that’s a great way to recycle the editing-room floor footage!

Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer and editor and Videomaker‘s Managing Editor.

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