As the Academy unveiled the five Oscar nominees in the category for Best Documentary, we got our usual competition between biographies and documentary dramas echoing the state of the world.
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Asif Kapadia’s Amy, the much talked about Amy Whinehouse’s biography, a success at the box office, stands as the favorite of the category. One runner up, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? the other biography featured here, makes an interesting competitor alongside Kapadia’s film. Both documentaries are pretty conventional in their narratives. They show two singers with great voices, but with highly different characters from two opposite worlds. With Amy you get a feeling that success and downfall came the way of Winehouse (not without work or talent though) with consequences from subsequent choices she made. In Simone’s case, who was also a human rights activist, the consequences made her go for a path that just seemed the only obvious choice, a way which sometimes led to tragedy. Difficult times that made her stronger when pulling herself together in the later point of her career and contributed to her legend. With Simone you get the complexity of a singular character. Beside her talents, it just didn’t seemed the case for Winehouse (while taking in consideration she died young). The worldwide success of Amy Winehouse seemed more like a good reason to scrutinize that part of her life in a tabloid fashion as sometime Amy sounds and looks.
Alongside these two portraits, director Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land (with Kathryn Bigelov as one of its producers) tells the account of US-Mexican border vigilantes and Militias going against the drug cartels from Mexico. Heineman highlights two concerns of the day: the challenge of the war on drugs and more specifically, groups of citizens who arrange their own defense, either in Mexico or USA, without clear consent of the concerned authorities. If some pieces are missing from the account on vigilantes on the US side, nonetheless its pretty well edited and it puts the antagonists at ease to confess a lot on camera. In the same breath it doesn’t try to get the final word over its subject or passing judgement on the real life characters it depicts.
Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire is a chronological account of the fight of Ukrainian people, during the unrest of 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich. It’s an interesting job of editing with a flavor of Cinema-verité of its time. A lot of its narrative is spent on sowing the ambient chaos the whole affair was (some images are pretty disturbing) rather than being an extensive comprehensive guide of the whole situation.
Cinema wise (as well as with its unexpected content) Joshua Oppenheimer ‘s Look of Silence, the second opus (after his Oscar nominee The Act of Killing) of his powerful Indonesian odyssey, follows in the step of the previous instalment. In search of answers, a young man, who’s brother was killed in the 1965’s purge, visits nowadays (as an Optometrist) the self-confessed killers (they’ve been totally free and in good Health all these years). Facing his own fear, he meets the people responsible for his brother’s death and uncover the details of the killings (and the distorted teaching of history that followed to this day). By looking directly into the eyes (and soul) of the protagonists, Oppenheimer and his crew (most are credited anonymously) carefully crafts strong images that puts a human face on the killing and their perpetrators who do not hide their acts and even brag about it. Troubling. It probably won’t get it, but it deserves the Oscar.