Back Row Thoughts – Achievement Unlocked!

Well folks, I finally did it. As of Monday I have completed the Documentary Feature shortlist. No matter which five films are nominated next Tuesday, I will have seen and processed them. It turns out that the reason I could see them all was through an Academy program called “Oscars Spotlight: Documentaries.” It’s a new program that began this year with the express purpose of getting all 15 shortlisted films in front of the public’s eyes, even if they didn’t have U.S. distribution (like Communion). This is the first year of the program, which began on New Year’s Eve and continues through this coming Monday, the day before the nominations are announced.

I’m sorry I didn’t know the details of the program earlier, or I would have posted it here, as the series is being run in 13 cities nationwide: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Raleigh, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Seattle, and Washington DC. I’ll link to the Academy’s press release here, so if you want to make it out to the designated theatre in one of these cities over the weekend, you still might have a chance to catch one or two of these movies, all of which have something worth seeing, even if they’re not necessarily worthy of the grand prize.

But now, it’s time to put a bow on this puppy and review the final four films of the list. I won’t rank all the films just yet; I’ll wait until it’s time to tackle the category during the Oscar Gold series starting next week. But after we look at these four movies, I will at least reveal the five I would vote for to be nominated were I a member of the Documentary wing of the Academy, and thus had a say in the matter.

Charm City
The tone is set immediately when the title card goes up, with the “C” in Baltimore’s nickname (itself created in the 1970s to improve the city’s image) blinking in and out like a neon sign, changing the word to “HARM.” More than most (if not all) cities in the country, Baltimore has an epidemic of gun violence.

The film takes a look at three disparate angles to tackle the issue. The first is community activism, led by an older gentleman known as Mr. C. and a younger activist named Alex. They run neighborhood programs to make sure low- and no-income people have money for the bus and can get jobs. They break up domestic issues before police can get involved, because the poorer, minority areas of the city are disproportionately targeted by police, who are recorded by Alex and others harassing people for minor offenses as gunshots ring out in the background.

The second group is the police themselves. Several black cops are looked upon as traitors to their community rather than good people working to fix the system from within. Captain Monique Brown has to deal with the double whammy of being a minority and a woman in power, doing her best to work with people while still maintaining a semblance of order. Meanwhile, her officers are jaded because they’re lumped in with the “bad apples.” Black or white, the street cops get it from all sides, and increasingly become burned out and feel unappreciated, which sadly, comes with the territory. Doesn’t stop them from being snarky about it. But when called into action, they mostly do what’s right, and there are some good guys out there trying to engage with the people they police.

Finally, we get a look at the political engagement, via Baltimore’s youngest City Councilman, Brandon Scott. Over the course of the film he holds town hall meetings and committee hearings to try to get to the bottom of crime in the city, especially how it escalates and becomes violent. He offers legislation to restructure and prioritize police activity, and later fights against minimum sentencing laws. He’s a passionate public servant who knows that there’s no easy answer to the crisis of gun violence in the city, but he’s willing to run every step of the marathon.

All three stories work well in their own bubble. I wish they had interacted with one another, but as the producer of the film told me during a Q&A post-screening, it was intentional that the groups never worked together, especially since they all operate in different areas of the city. Mr. C.’s community center isn’t even in Councilman Scott’s district, for example.

There are steps forward and steps back, each entity rotating into the spotlight as the film progresses over the course of a few years. And naturally, as had to be the case in a story like this, there is tragedy, and even though I was waiting for that particular shoe to drop, when it finally did, and how it did, just broke my damn heart.

Grade: A-

On Her Shoulders
In 2014, a young Yazidi woman (Kurdish ethnic minority) named Nadia Murad was kidnapped by ISIS and used as a sexual slave while the bulk of her village was slaughtered. After her escape, she has dedicated her life to activism, speaking at the United Nations multiple times, being named a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and last year winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Alexandria Bombach’s film, On Her Shoulders, takes an intimate look at Nadia’s journey all over the world as she speaks out against ISIS and human trafficking, while also advocating for a home for her displaced people. There are plenty of heartbreaking scenes as she recounts her story many times through various media outlets with the help of her interpreter Murad, as well as moments of true human agony as she finds Yazidi refugees and offers her comfort as best she can.

It’s a powerful story, and she is a formidable woman to bear such burdens. I guess the problem for me is that I’m just burned out on ISIS and Syria-related documentaries. Over the last couple of years we’ve had the Oscar-winning short, The White Helmets, the nominated feature Last Men in Aleppo, and even an Original Song nomination for “The Empty Chair,” from Jim: The James Foley Story. Even in this year’s set we’ve got this film and Of Fathers and Sons tackling the caliphate from different sides. And if I’m being completely honest, this film seems like a sequel to He Named Me Malala, which was a much better movie overall.

It’s important and necessary to be aware of the genocide going on in the Middle East, but I can’t help but feel that we’re just pissing into the wind at this point. The conflict will continue unabated as long as ISIS exists, as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power, and as long as Vladimir Putin props him up. Hell, we just lost four Americans in Syria the other day, after our Cheeto-stained shit-gibbon of a President unilaterally decided we were pulling all our troops out, then backpedaled it, and hours later the Vice President had the unmitigated gall to declare that ISIS had been defeated when literally we have four corpses that say otherwise. It’s all so exhausting and there’s no end in sight. So while I’m glad for Nadia’s story, I just can’t get excited about it, because right now there’s no real hope for resolution.

Grade: B-

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
RaMell Ross is a photographer and high school basketball couch in Hale County, Alabama, a majority black rural county. In his first feature film, Ross follows the journey of two of his team stars, Quincy and Daniel. Both have aspirations of going pro, but neither is likely to achieve their dream. Quincy begins the film as a high school senior who has just become a father to Kyrie with his girlfriend, nicknamed “Boosie.” It’s not clear whether the couple drops out of school or simply just doesn’t go to college, but Quincy quickly settles for the domestic life and factory work. Daniel is accepted at Selma University and plays ball there.

But really, there’s no true narrative to the film. Ross, who specializes in large format photography, uses his camera to subvert expectations of the rural south and rural black people, and to an extent he succeeds. I certainly never expected to see a bunch of brothers decked out in street clothes all riding horses, for example. Can’t say I ever saw that coming. But mostly the film to me projects a sense of hopelessness, because whether it’s a focus on the limits of Quincy and Daniel’s achievable dreams or just the state of everyone else who falls into his lens, you just get the sense that none of this matters and no one really has a chance.

For example, Daniel’s mother Mary has a young daughter, and in a particularly poignant for all the wrong reasons scene, Mary berates the toddler for not knowing her own name. Never mind that we don’t know it until later (and I can’t remember it), this three-year-old has no chance at life, because her own mother is calling her stupid for being unable to answer questions that are put to her in a language that barely passes for English. “Wha tyo na? Wha tyo na mis? Who yo mama is? Wha she do?” she taunts while dragging on a cigarette. Even if she were speaking perfectly, that’s no way to treat a child. What hope does this poor girl have?

Similarly, in a scene that’s meant to be tragic and heartbreaking, Quincy and Boosie have boy/girl twins, and the boy succumbs to Crib Death (I refuse to use the other acronym, because if you’re suddenly dead, it’s not a syndrome – again people, learn how words work!). We’re meant to be sad, and obviously it’s terrible to lose a child. But because Quincy is a protagonist in name only, we don’t spend nearly enough time with him to care. It just comes across as tacked-on pathos, especially after the funeral when Quincy says his biggest fear was suffocating, and it happened to his own baby. Had we really gotten to know Quincy throughout the film, this would have landed hard. Instead, I’m more saddened by the fact that Quincy and Boosie couldn’t be bothered to spell the poor boy’s name correctly (the twins are named Korbyn and Karmyn, I shit you not), and then I’m tempted to laugh because a black couple in the deep south with no hint of irony named their kids KKK.

The best I can say for the film is that it does turn some expectations on their heads about life in the south, but it’s hard to parse out those moments because much of the film is Ross taking several long, unbroken shots of things that are meant to look poetic but just seem like a waste of time. There’s a shot over two minutes long of a field as he’s driving past, but the picture is so blurry (because the car’s moving too fast and the camera’s focus is off) that I can’t tell if it’s a cotton field or just a random field covered in light snow. It was probably the former, given that this is Alabama, but you really can’t be sure. There’s another scene where Quincy’s son Kyrie, now a toddler, runs back and forth through the living room and hallway of their apartment for several minutes, occasionally uttering the only word he seems to know, the n-word. It all just stinks of pretension, and if you don’t believe me, there are title cards Ross inserts throughout the film which ask nonsensical philosophical questions (and are never paid off through action or interview), and one where Boosie grows tired of the proceedings and he simply writes, “Now carrying twins, Boosie careth NOT for the film.” The fuck outta here! What are you Shakespeare now?

Grade: C-

The Distant Barking of Dogs
Say, did you know that Vladimir Putin was a dick? I think I mentioned it earlier. Well, in case you needed more proof, look no further than Ukraine, which Putin has been trying to take over for years. He annexed Crimea, he’s used puppet regimes to increase his influence, and he’s literally rolled tanks into the country while claiming they’re not his. It’s sickening what that shirtless horse-riding fuck gets away with.

Anyway, The Distant Barking of Dogs is a double-entendre title. It literally refers to the sounds of canines in the background of just about every scene, but it also figuratively refers to the shooting and mortar wars going on mere kilometers away from a small Ukrainian village. That’s where we meet Alexandra, an elderly woman who looks after her grandson Oleg, whose mother was killed after the invasion began. Over the course of just over a year, we follow Oleg and his cousin Jarik as they attempt to live as normal adolescent boys while Alexandra does her best to literally keep her home together. The village barely has electricity, and the family has no indoor plumbing, rather an actual pot to piss in underneath the kitchen counter, as Oleg demonstrates in one scene.

The boys barely go to school, and while there most of the time is spent on defense and shelter drills in case the bombs come any closer. Oleg and Jarik live in a mix of youthful adventuring and existential terror as their days are split between swimming in a nearby river and cowering in a basement. It’s gut-wrenching to watch and you just want to hug those poor boys and tell them everything’s going to be okay. But of course, it isn’t. Over the course of the film Alexandra tells stories about friends and neighbors who have died horribly since the conflict began, and one wonders if it’s only a matter of time before this family is taken. Jarik is briefly taken away by his mother to move in with her soldier boyfriend, but he’s brought back because he’s bullied for speaking Russian in his new school. His own mother abandons him rather than lose a relationship.

With the help of a teenage friend, the boys do end up learning some harsh lessons about life while also attempting to find fun in their situation. There’s an innocence to them that is beautiful and palpable throughout, and you just hope against hope that their brief and painful experiments with pellet guns and broken glass will be enough to dissuade them from any kind of life of violence. This film may be the ultimate example of “making the best of a bad situation.” All the while, the dogs keep barking, and you never know how soon it’ll be before the distance is closed.

Grade: B

* * * * *

Now as previously mentioned, I’m not going to rank these films just yet. I’ll wait until we officially explore the category during the Blitz. However, now that I’ve seen them all, I know which ones I want nominated. While I think there were better documentaries last year that didn’t make the shortlist, my five nominees are (in alphabetical order):

Charm City
Crime + Punishment
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In addition to my personal picks, I’m going to make a bold prediction and see if I can call the actual nominees before they come out on Tuesday. We have a bit of data thanks to the nominees in the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as the BAFTAs and Production Guilds. From those lists, we can see that RBGThree Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? have the most nominations. There are also two nominations for Free Solo. Assuming the Academy is something of an amalgam of all these different awards bodies, I think we can conclude that these four films will get nods.

So what about the fifth spot? I’m torn between two entries. There’s a lot of critical praise for Shirkers, and since it’s on Netflix, it’s immediately more accessible than most of the other entries. Plus, as previously mentioned, there are lazy voters who will see Woman, Minority, and “Film About Film” and take that as enough box checks to give it their support. Among the awards I’ve reported on, it’s only nominated for the Spirit. In fact, all six Spirit nominees made the shortlist, which brings us to the other possibility, Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It’s on the Spirit list, and it won the Gotham Independent Award for Best Documentary, beating out Won’t You Be My Neighbor?Minding the Gap, and Shirkers itself. Is that win enough to elevate it over a critical darling? I’m not sure. I know from where I sit, it was the worst film of the set for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It didn’t stop Last Men in Aleppo from getting nominated last year. It’s also possible that the Academy’s baffling hatred of popular documentaries will win out again, forcing Mr. Rogers to the sidelines and allowing both films in. I’m just not sure. So, in true journalistic fashion, there’s only one thing to do.

*flips coin*

I predict that the five Oscar nominees will be:

Free Solo
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Oscar nominations are only five days away. I can’t wait!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you had a chance to watch any of these films? Which did you like best? Seriously, who spells it Korbyn? Let me know!