Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I covered the vast majority of the Academy’s shortlist for Documentary Feature nearly two months ago. And even after that, I watched two of the three remaining films within a couple of days. There was just one left, which OF COURSE also got nominated, and I couldn’t watch it until earlier this week. It has been nearly impossible to track down, as screenings and virtual access have been repeatedly cancelled and region-locked. Seriously, in one instance I signed up for a website and was but one click away from purchasing a VOD rental after over a dozen steps before they finally deigned to tell me that it was only accessible from a Canadian IP address. Dammit! I was finally able to see it through a one-time virtual event, and sadly it won’t be available to mass audiences until two days AFTER the Oscars. Because what better way to get votes for your movie than to make sure no one can see it until after its fate is decided, am I right?
Still, the annual goal to view the entire shortlist is complete, so I can finally review the last three movies. As always, I’ll officially rank the entire list when I cover the Documentary Feature category for the Blitz next week, but if you want a general idea, you can read through the entire “Back Row Thoughts” series on this year’s field (here are links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), as well as previously-published reviews of Flee, The Rescue, and Summer of Soul. The mission has been accomplished, so let’s put a bow on this puppy!
I went to high school and college in upstate New York (my family still lives there), and I’ve seen Dog Day Afternoon, so I knew the basic story of the Attica Prison uprising. The inmates rioted, hostages were taken, and after a few days, the prison was reclaimed by armed law enforcement after several casualties. It was considered one of the most critical moments of the 1970s, and became a lightning rod for the discussion of prisoners’ rights.
At least, that’s what we were taught in school. Directed by Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson, the film Attica takes viewers deeper than anyone could have expected, exploring not only the events of the riot, but the core issues at play, the aggression of the military-style tactics used to end it (despite the carnage, most of the history I was taught described the event as a back-and-forth fight rather than the one-sided massacre it really was), and the part that half of our political establishment never wants to discuss, the racial element.
Using some deeply empathetic interviews from former inmates (mostly black and Hispanic) as well as the families of the guards who were taken hostage, combined with archival footage, Curry and Nelson piece together a truly chilling sequence of events that illustrates the basic humanity that the prisoners were trying to show the world as well the complete lack of it from those in power, from repressive political figures like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller to dismissive administrators to trigger-happy police giddily trading racial slurs as they hunt down human beings like fish in a barrel.
While all of this is morally reprehensible, the most important aspect is the exploration of the Attica community as a whole. I know from personal experience that many of the quasi-rural villages in upstate NY are very homogenous societies. They’re small towns, filled with relatively friendly people, where everyone knows everyone else, usually from church or school. They’re also very conservative and very white, and as such, the worldview is fairly limited. Even nearby larger cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the state capital Albany are highly segregated thanks to red-lined neighborhoods created after World War II.
Because of that, in a time like the early 70s, decades before internet access exposed them to the rest of the country and the world, people lived fairly simple lives in these areas, where social and political views were largely monolithic due purely to not knowing anything different. As the film itself points out, nearly the entire minority population of the village of Attica was housed within the prison’s walls, so the citizenry had no practical context for exposure to other races except through the lens of criminality, which extended to stereotyping and presumptions that there was a literal black-and-white separation between good and bad, with black criminals taking good, hard-working white men (the prison being by far the area’s largest employer) hostage. Such a dichotomy made it easier to focus hatred and dehumanize the dozens of victims, and made it really easy to believe that the hostages killed were done in by the prisoners rather than law enforcement itself.
I saw a lot of this first-hand. When I moved to the area in 1996, right at the beginning of the digital era, the census demographics had my county (Wayne County, about 70 miles northeast of Attica’s Wyoming County) at about 97% Republican. This makes sense. We’re talking small towns and farm communities, blue-collar factory workers, church-goers (heavily Catholic, but Mormonism was founded in the county as well, and there’s a significant evangelical population), and a general vibe of live and let live, so long as your living doesn’t make the majority uncomfortable in any way. I remember that when we moved, my mother – about as liberal as they come – registered as a Republican initially just to avoid potential social awkwardness. By the time I graduated high school, the dynamics shifted by quite a few points, so that it was closer to a 90/10 split of conservative to liberal. I like to think I personally corrupted 7% of the population, but really it was a combination of a Democratic president in Bill Clinton overseeing a strong economy (though obviously his local approval tanked after he dared to sin with extra-marital sex of any kind) and the internet creating an outlet to the larger world so that people could learn from something other than a bible or pre-approved, sanitized textbooks. Hell, being in an honors-level English class was the only reason I got to read an “unabridged” version of A Tale of Two Cities. My high school had one of the largest failure rates in the statewide “Regents” exam (standardized tests that have since been discontinued) in Biology simply due to students refusing to answer questions about evolution. By the time I finished college at Syracuse, the demographics went further left still, thanks to wider online access and mass shuttering of the very factories the populace relied on for steady work. Now it’s almost an even split, with about 50% of the county as Republican, 40% Democratic, and 10% third parties.
Simply being exposed to the rest of the world was able to change tens of thousands of hearts and minds in the span of just a couple of decades, but that wasn’t an option in 1971. And it’s a wonderfully insightful and nuanced lesson that Attica teaches about this crucial aspect of our social evolution in the midst of the deep tragedy of one of the darkest days of violence in modern American history.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
As you all know, I am not a fan of Billie Eilish. I’m just not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to understand and appreciate her accomplishments, even if her style of so-called “music” isn’t for me. I genuinely want to “get it” rather than just raging. So while it is baffling to me that a documentary about her got shortlisted, I was definitely going to give it a fair shake and sincerely hope that I could gain some kind of insight into why she’s as popular as she is, what it is about her or her work that appeals to so many people.
This movie did not do that. Commissioned and distributed by her record label, Interscope, this is less a documentary about Billie Eilish than it is pure promotional material to accompany her first album, and it’s honestly sickening how blatant of a sales pitch this two-and-a-half hour fluff piece is, to the point that I honestly question the Documentary Branch’s overall credibility in even deeming it eligible, much less shortlisting it. That said, it is not the worst of the list, but that’s mostly due to what I believe is some unintentionally ironic poignancy.
There really isn’t much detail about her creative process. Most of that is left to brother Finneas, who does the bulk of the composing and songwriting (if you can call it that; it’s 95% computers – the hook of her hit “Bad Guy” is just the looped theme of the video game Plants vs. Zombies sped up). Billie herself mostly just has a notebook with a few lyrics and some rudimentary sketches that every goth poser you knew from middle school had. There’s no real exploration of why she might have darker thoughts or ideas to put into song, just a nebulous line about “going through stuff,” and one or two brief mentions of her having Tourette Syndrome.
These scenes sadly only reinforce the idea that Billie Eilish is a marketing campaign made flesh rather than an actual musician. It’s like if you told an AI to program the most profitable pop star in history, and then substituted in an emo persona rather than a sexpot, since that’s what all the other pop stars are. There’s no connective tissue between the opening moments that mention her first viral single, “Ocean Eyes,” (a traditional pop song where she actually sings intelligible lyrics with discernible notes and minimal computerized beats, accompanied by a simple music video where she just sings to the camera) to her current output, which sounds drastically different. Leaving such details out only leaves us to fill in the gaps, and given all the other corporate shenanigans at play, I choose to fill them in with the assumption that the intervening time was spent crafting her stage appearance rather than doing anything creative, because I’ve been given no evidence to suggest anything different.
In fact, the movie seems to go out of its way to show that Billie has only lived a charmed life, giving lie to the supposedly darker elements of her music. She has a loving and supportive family, particularly Finneas, with the only potential hiccup being her stage mom, Maggie Baird. There have been numerous rumors and accusations over the last few years that as a small-time actress, Maggie and husband Patrick O’Connell essentially engineered Billie and Finneas to be celebrity commodities as a means to live vicariously through them and make up for their own lack of showbiz success, and in the few times Maggie gets directly involved in Billie’s affairs, she does nothing to disabuse anyone of the idea. The one time she scolds her daughter is for trying to bail on a meet-and-greet with suits from the record label. There’s a moment where Maggie mentions that she considered putting Billie into therapy for her irrational, obsessive attraction to Justin Bieber (evidenced by a VERY unhealthy Instagram video where a 12-year-old Billie professes to be incapable of love for any other human but Bieber – this is your “alternative” hero, someone who worships BIEBER?!), but decided against it, mostly because it would interrupt Billie’s process, which really translates to a temporary pause in her daughter being a meal ticket. And even then it’s played mostly as a fantasy wish, as Billie eventually meets Bieber and sobs because all her dreams have come true. Note to Hailey Baldwin, watch your back.
So who is the real Billie Eilish? Well, as shown in this film, she’s essentially Veruca Salt with a bad dye job. She’s demanding, ungrateful, insulting, and resentful of her own product. She constantly whines that she hates the songwriting process (a true artist!) and even singing above a whisper, which she calls “belting,” (in a segment devoted to her inexplicably Oscar-nominated theme for No Time to Die) a practice she writes off as “stupid,” along with anybody who does it, meaning 99% of all singers on Earth. When she gets her learner’s permit, a scene presented as a heartwarming rite of passage, she spends the entire ride home mocking her mother’s car – as well as those of the rest of the family – before telling us she wants a black Dodge Challenger, which she gets for her 17th birthday, because such horrid behavior is supposed to be rewarded. She goes on a radio show (Kevin & Bean on KROQ, which was eventually cancelled by royal scumbag Mike “The Show Killer” Kaplan as part of a rebranding effort to de-emphasize the “Rock” part of “K-Rock” and feature more Billie Eilish and other pop acts) to essentially brag about having never gone to school in her life, instead being home-schooled by her mom and getting her GED, but acting as if that makes her smarter than everyone. In her first video shoot, she berates the director ceaselessly before insisting that she direct all her videos going forward, because a 16-year-old knows way more than a professional director. Guess what she’s doing by the end of the movie. She initially refuses to perform at Coachella because technical difficulties might require her to simply sing on stage rather than having a bunch of giant screens showing her videos in the background. She eventually goes on after more than an hour’s delay, only to forget the lyrics and insult the stage crew.
I’m sorry, why are we giving her the world again? Even the few hints we get at actual credibility are eventually marred by her shit attitude. She suffers from leg pain in part due to a childhood injury that ended her original ambitions of being a dancer (or more cynically, the narrative of Maggie grooming her for stardom rather than any actual love for the performing arts), and during a show in Milan, the moment she starts jumping on stage, she sprains her ankle, forcing her to be carried offstage. She comes back to apologize to the crowd, telling them that she’d rather not do a show than do a mediocre one. But she eventually does just sit there and sing for her fans, because the show must go on.
Okay, that’s at least something. But if you think about it, this is a mess entirely of her own making. No one said she had to jump around on stage like a spider monkey tweaked out on ALL the Molly. She chose that as part of her performance. She has a large enough fan base that no one’s going to abandon her because she decides to – gasp – just do music. Combine it with the Coachella screens and any number of accoutrements she demands as part of her act, and you realize that she’s all style and no substance. She doesn’t want to simply perform music on stage because she has no music to perform. Deep down, she knows that without all these distractions, she’s just a relatively happy teenager like everyone else, and that does NOT work for the bottom line. So she hops around like an idiot, knowing it will hurt her, until she gets to the point of serious injury. That’s not rock and roll, that’s just stupidity. Yes, it’s a step up from Bieber cancelling shows because he feels sad, but it’s way the hell below the likes of Dave Grohl breaking his leg because a speaker fell on it, going backstage for a cast, and then coming back onstage to not only finish his show, but finish his entire tour sitting on a decorative chair. That’s artistry. That’s a true performer. Billie’s just a prop.
It all leads up to the most disgusting denouement, the Grammy Awards, where she wins five, including the Big Four (Record, Song, and Album of the Year, plus Best New Artist). Again, this is presented in the movie as a moment of celebration, but it’s ironically off-putting, because each clip shows the announcements during the ceremony, where there’s a camera on her, as well as on the likes of Lizzo, Ariana Grande, and several other black and minority performers (plus, for some reason, Bon Iver). It’s kind of racist when you put it all together. “And the nominees are… Black Artist, Black Artist, Black Artist, Latin Artist, and Pretty White Girl. And the Grammy goes to… PRETTY WHITE GIRL!”
On its face, this movie has no business being considered for anything except a massively involved process of converting it to toilet paper and using it to wipe my ass after the most heinous bout of diarrhea imaginable. But once you look past the obvious corporate bullshit, you do see hints of unintentional insight and nuance, because in this naked, transparent attempt to pump up someone already famous beyond reason, the movie ends up showing us how empty, shallow, and ultimately pitiable she really is, a young woman desperately in need of professional help and for someone willing to tell her “no.” Sure, she’ll just laugh it off like a scene where she mocks some yahoo calling her music “demonic” as a means to diffuse any actual criticism, but deep down, there is an actual person there with real problems, just not any that are marketable enough to acknowledge.
Writing With Fire
The final entry is the one that was hardest to see, and for the vast majority of American audiences, you won’t get a chance until after the Oscars ceremony, which ultimately defeats the purpose. I honestly do not understand such a release model.
Anyway, the film tells the story of a news organization called Khabar Lahariya (literally “News Wave”), a newspaper in the Uttar Pradesh region of India run entirely by Dalit women. In the Hindu caste system, the “Dalit” are the so-called “Untouchables,” the lowest of the low, born into a life of persecution and poverty due to the belief that they committed grave sins in a previous life, and are thus reincarnated into a punished state. At least, that’s always been my understanding of it. While today even labeling people as such is technically illegal in India (the Constitutional term is apparently “Scheduled Castes”), discrimination against them is commonplace. Add in some heavily patriarchal aspects of society, and the women running this paper are in what is likely the least enviable social class possible.
And yet, that’s why the paper exists, to tell the stories that no one else will tell, and have the people living through them be the ones to tell them. Filmed over the course of five years, the story mainly focuses on Meera, the chief reporter for the organization, as she guides her staff through a conversion from print to digital journalism, arming them with smartphones and video editing equipment so that they can broadcast on YouTube (the view totals are continuously updated throughout the film). Joining Meera through much of the action is Suneeta, one of the newer journalists, who focuses on crime, particularly why allegations of rape from Dalit women go uninvestigated and unprosecuted.
Everyone involved faces a degree of bigotry due to their status and gender, even when they’re ostensibly on the side of those they interview. There’s a tragically fascinating scene fairly early on where local villagers are aggrieved because a nearby mining operation has caused numerous dangerous explosions and severely damaged the roads to the point of them being impassable. The group even includes some of the miners themselves, who fear to be seen on screen as it’s heavily implied the operation is an offshoot of organized crime. But instead of simply answering Meera’s questions and giving facts about their situation, they criticize her for even being there, because they feel it’s impossible for a woman to understand their plight, and they insist that she simply post the group’s demands on the front page of the newspaper/website without getting any information from the other side.
About midway through, the film shifts focus to covering political campaigns, starting with the 2014 elections that saw current Prime Minister Narendra Modi rise to power. An extreme right-wing Hindu nationalist, Modi believes in a militaristic approach to dealing with ethnic and religious minorities, and even caused worldwide backlash when he amended citizenship laws to basically deny Muslims legal status in the country. He is seen as representing a backslide in democracy, labor rights, and equality, including potentially reinstating formal caste discrimination. That said, he is a populist, and as the film notes, his 2019 reelection gave him record-breaking margins, even though his policies represent an existential threat to Khabar Lahariya, its employees, and persecuted communities in general.
As the film notes, just like other high-profile crackdowns in Russia, Belarus, and Saudi Arabia, more than 40 journalists have been killed in India in recent years, making Meera and Suneeta’s work essential, but dangerous. We see examples of this in scenes where a local member of Modi’s party is interviewed, a man who dutifully carries and brandishes a sword to deal with dissidents and nonconformists, patronizing press conferences where Meera (as the only woman present) is advised by colleagues to ask softball questions that make public figures look good rather than pestering them about scandals and shortcomings, and an entire subplot where Suneeta has to juggle her desire to continue working with the expectation that she marry.
This is once again a fine demonstration of the crucial nature of the fourth estate, which is constantly under attack by authoritarian powers. And from a meta production standpoint, there’s a certain feel-good nature to this film as a sort of spiritual successor to the Oscar-winning short documentary, Period. End of Sentence, which was also about a community of Indian women coming together in common cause to improve their lives (in that case by manufacturing and selling feminine hygiene products). I’m not sure this movie rises to the pantheon, in that nothing we’re told is especially novel if you follow the news, but it’s still very much worth your time. Or at least, it would be if the distributor wasn’t trying to embargo the film until after the Oscars, thereby risking its relevance entirely.
Join the conversation in the comments below! How many of the shortlisted documentaries did you get to see? How many of the eventual nominees? Which films do you think should have been on this list that weren’t? Let me know!