New York Times
By MELENA RYZIK
Published: February 2, 2011
In 2007, when the journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington set out to make a documentary following a military unit in Afghanistan, they had no awards aspirations.
“Don’t get hurt, don’t get killed doing this — that was our first order of business,” Mr. Junger said. The documentary, “Restrepo,” about a remote base in the Korangal Valley, led them to embed with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team for over a year, and they did get hurt. A Humvee Mr. Junger was in drove over an improvised explosive device, rattling those on board, and he later tore his Achilles’ tendon jumping out of the line of a firefight. Mr. Hetherington broke his leg on a mission and had to walk four hours down a mountain on it, humping his gear, to get back to camp. Their personal ordeals, complete with some level of post-traumatic stress and difficulty returning to civilian life, mirrored those of the soldiers they followed. “Restrepo” won a grand jury prize for best domestic documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year and went on to play at theaters and on military bases around the country.
Now it is one of the five Oscar documentary hopefuls, in a category that was among the few with major surprises when nominations were announced last week. “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” an early favorite, was left off the list, as was “The Tillman Story,” another harrowing film about Afghanistan; “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” from the Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), also got no love. Instead the contenders are mostly smaller films from lesser-known filmmakers: “Waste Land,” about the artist Vik Muniz, set against the backdrop of a massive garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro; “Gasland,” which examines the dangers of natural-gas drilling; and the oddball of the group, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Banksy’s subversive story of a street artist run amok. The presumed front-runner is “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s well-liked feisty dissection of the economic crisis. But with most of the feature film and acting categories apparently sewn up, thanks to the consensus voting of industry groups, the documentaries are one area where there is still some drama.
“This is tough year, a really tough year,” Mr. Gibney, who is on the executive committee of the documentary branch at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said at a screening for his movie at the start of this awards season.
Mr. Ferguson, the only repeat nominee (he was a contender with “No End in Sight” in 2008), has as an agent now, but he was still bewildered by the whole prize process. “This is totally not my department,” he said.
And Mr. Junger, a veteran war correspondent but first-time filmmaker, said he wished “The Tillman Story” had been included. (That film deconstructs the official story behind the death of the former National Football League star Pat Tillman while fighting in Afghanistan.) “The nominating procedure is a mystery even for people in the business,” he said.
Lucy Walker, the director of “Waste Land” and several other documentaries, agreed. “It’s a small community,” she said, “but you don’t get to peek behind the curtain.” At the this year’s Sundance festival, where she was a juror, Ms. Walker met an Academy member who told her he had voted to nominate her film but didn’t know how to vote for her to win. (The documentary branch requires its members to have seen all the films to vote.) “He was saying, like: ‘Do I have to see the movies all over again? I’ve seen them all already, but I think I have to go see it again, and I don’t think I can vote for you because I’m leaving town,’ ” she recounted. (No repeat viewings were necessary if he had already seen it at the nominations level, according to Leslie Unger, an Academy spokeswoman; if he hadn’t, it had to be seen at a theater, not on a screener.)
“I’ve been asking for copies of the rules of the voting,” Ms. Walker said. “It seems quite arcane.”
Ms. Walker, a Londoner now living in the Venice section of Los Angeles, fretted that her movie was an unsavory sell. “I joke that it is a movie about garbage, but if you ask the publicist, it’s about the transformative power of art,” she said during an interview in a coffee shop near her home on Tuesday. With little in the way of an awards marketing budget — the prize money the film has won on the festival circuit or through auctioning Mr. Muniz’s work has gone back to the catadores, or garbage pickers, the film focuses on, she said — Ms. Walker is exploring all avenues to help promote “Waste Land.”
“I called up the British Film Council today,” she said. “We don’t have any money. We didn’t have any food at our premiere. I actually got really upset, because I would’ve brought some. We’re just the poor cousins.”
At least her milieu can be pretty fabulous. Ms. Walker, an Oxford-educated, well-connected former D.J. (her pal Moby did the music for the film), does have some has glittery perks, like access to screenings at the Soho House in Los Angeles, and a party in New York given by the designer Diane von Furstenberg, one of several high-profile fans of the film.
Josh Fox, the director of “Gasland,” is starting on a lower-wattage scale. Mr. Fox, who runs a small downtown theater company in New York, has been on a nationwide grass-roots tour, driving his film to screenings at theaters, community centers, Environmental Protection Agency offices and schools. (O.K., one is at Dalton, the tony private school on the Upper East Side.) Mr. Fox does have the backing of HBO, which showed his film last year, but most of the financing for his tour comes from foundations, and none is earmarked for awards-season campaigning. On the road he sometimes sleeps in his car.
“The Oscar would be great, but what we really want to do is beat the gas industry,” Mr. Fox said. His film investigates hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a drilling process that pumps water and chemicals underground to extract natural gas and results, critics say, in environmental and health damage and, as seen in the film, memorable hazards like faucets that pour flammable water.
But the film has faced criticism from oil and gas companies; on Tuesday, Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, a pro-drilling group, sent a letter to the Academy asking it to rescind its nomination. “The filmmaker alternates between misstating and outright ignoring basic and verifiable facts related to the impact of these activities on the health and welfare of humans, wildlife and the environment,” the letter read. In an interview last week with John Collins Rudolf, of the Green blog of The New York Times, Mr. Fuller said, “It’s unfortunate there isn’t an Oscar category for propaganda.”
In a phone interview from his Brooklyn production studio on Wednesday, where he and his editor were “watching all the attack videos against us” and preparing to respond, Mr. Fox said the protests may end up helping the movie. “The industry has ramped up their attacks and their smear campaigns against us,” he said, “and at the same time we have increased screening and visibility.”
Visibility has been both the blessing and the curse for Banksy, the pseudonymous British artist known for his street stencils, pranks and million-dollar prices. His wry film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” takes as its subject Thierry Guetta, a filmmaker turned street artist (he goes by Mr. Brainwash professionally), widening the lens to include the power of subculture and the value of the art market. Outside of a few screenings and statements, neither Banksy nor his filmmaking partners has done much campaigning, but shortly after the nominations were announced a large street-art image of a gold Oscar statue in a hoodie, like the kind Banksy wears in the film, appeared in Los Angeles. Banksy’s publicist attributed the work to Mr. Brainwash.
Whether the secretive Banksy will appear at the awards ceremony has been a subject of great speculation among Oscar watchers. (And who will design his formal hoodie?)
For the rest of the documentarians the attire demanded by the awards circuit has been a sudden source of stress.
“Last time I wore a tuxedo was about 15 years ago,” Mr. Junger said in a phone interview after the nominations. “I’m actually walking over to the closet right now. The white shirt looks like parchment.” For Mr. Ferguson, “formal wear is a turtleneck,” he said. “But I’ve been told that in this circumstance that might not be appropriate.”
With Mr. Muniz, Ms. Walker is busy trying to get Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos, the Brazilian garbage worker, who is central to her film, into the United States for the event. (His visa application has been denied.) She doesn’t know what she will wear, but if he makes it, she knows what he will. “Ozwald Boateng,” the British designer, “is going to dress him for the Oscars,” she said.
And Mr. Fox doesn’t own a tuxedo. “I have spent the last year with quite a lot of TV appearances, and I have one jacket and one tie that I’ve worn in all of them,” he said. “It’s a great tie, an expensive tie. It was a gift. From a producer.”