A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Arts & Entertainment

Oscars 2016: From troubled divas to politics — the Academy Award-nominated documentaries

A still from
A still from "The Look of Silence."

Off-Ramp correspondent R.H. Greene examines the Academy’s nominees for the Best Documentary Feature of 2015.

“Amy,” directed by Asif Kapadia

I have mixed emotions about Asif Kapadia’s vibrant and in many ways convincing biographical documentary “Amy.” Kapadia has made much of the fact that he wasn’t an Amy Winehouse fan when Universal Music Group selected him to direct this work on the strength of “Senna,” his other film about doomed celebrity.

Watch the trailer for "Amy"

UMG knew what it was doing. Kapadia and his collaborators unearthed a treasure trove of private videos and B-roll oddities to create an exceptional and intimate portrait of a familiar star. Yet the agenda — to make Amy Winehouse into a victim of larger cultural forces as embodied in the casual cruelty of the mass audience — seems both well-taken and emotionally false.

Celebrity crushes artists routinely, and often seems to damage even those who eventually outrace its grasp. But there was something disturbingly different about Winehouse’s public embrace of her own downward spiral. “Rehab” — her biggest hit — couldn’t be more direct as a self-depiction by a willful and entitled star shrugging off an intervention. Yet Kapadia strives mightily to make Winehouse’s self-immolation “our” fault.

Turning Winehouse into that hoariest pop culture cliche — a martyr crucified by her audience’s callousness — is a convenient position for a filmmaker enlisted by a record label to reinvigorate a back catalog, because it transforms the scary details into something comforting and familiar. While I won’t deny Kapadia convincingly states his claim, “Amy” still feels like half a truth at best. The elusive part of the story — the relentlessness of Winehouse’s drive toward self-obliteration — is obscured in favor of a tragic narrative that is easier to stomach, but ultimately harder to digest.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” directed by Liz Garbus

Of the two pop biographies on Oscar’s 2016 Best Documentary list, “Amy” is the presumptive frontrunner. More’s the pity, because Liz Garbus’s sprawling portrait “What Happened, Miss Simone?” has greater depth, a more resonant protagonist and celebrates a far more vast and compelling musical legacy.

Like Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone found success suddenly and seemed destined to be destroyed by it. Bipolar in an era of psychiatric primitivism, black and female in a period of livid racial and gender divides, Simone resonated to her times almost uncontrollably.

Initially presented as a kind of black Julie London for cocktail sophisticates, Simone was radicalized by the civil rights movement, eventually becoming both peer and muse to Martin Luther King as well as an adjunct auntie to the Malcolm X clan. But King’s assassination deeply embittered her.

What's gonna happen now? In all of our cities?
My people are rising; they're living in lies.
Even if they have to die
Even if they have to die at the moment they know what life is
Even at that one moment that ya know what life is
If you have to die, it's all right
Cause you know what life is
You know what freedom is for one moment of your life.

"Why? (The King of Love is Dead)"

Simone’s music became increasingly strident, even advocating for violent change, and she ultimately left the United States for exile — first in Liberia and ultimately in Europe.

Fueled by the vivid and frequently uncomfortable memories of Simone’s daughter Lisa and by a wealth of radiant archival clips of Miss Simone in action, Garbus is unflinching in charting both the intricacies and the failings of a tormented musical genius. Unlike Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone proved a survivor, who lived out a 70-year span. But her tragic life was made no less complex by her 2003 death, and Garbus is savvy enough to leave Simone’s contradictions intact. Among the most enduring of Simone’s enigmas: How did a woman who came to hate the country she was born into create one of the most sustained and most American of musical legacies?

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” understands that the answer to the question of its own title is one Simone herself might not have been able to give.

“The Look of Silence,” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The remaining three documentaries nominated for an Oscar move from the personal to the political.

For me personally, perhaps the single biggest Oscar disappointment in recent memory was the Academy’s failure to honor director Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” as Best Documentary of 2012. A surreal fusion of raw testimonial and unhinged reverie, “The Act of Killing” illuminated a forgotten genocide — Indonesia’s “anti-communist” massacres of the mid-1960s — through delirious self-portraits of the unapologetic killers. In a remarkable demonstration of Oppenheimer’s ability to win his subjects’ trust, elderly former members of Indonesia’s death squads not only shared every detail of their violent work, they also re-enacted their private fantasies and memories for Oppenheimer’s lens.

Watch the trailer

Oppenheimer’s 2015 film “The Look of Silence” takes him back to Indonesia for an equally potent portrait of violence’s victims. A quieter film but no less powerful, “Silence” tracks the odyssey of Adi, a door-to-door optometrist, who uses the odd access granted to a man of his profession to interrogate the killers responsible for the death of his older brother in 1965.

The symbolism is almost too perfect. Both in the film and in life, Adi’s function is to bring a hidden world into focus. It’s a dangerous calling in a country where the death squads of the past are the rulers of today. In Adi, Oppenheimer has found the one thing “The Act of Killing” lacked: a hero, capable of startling us with his bravery and of worrying us with his reckless disregard for his own safety and that of the people he loves.

A brilliant film that stands  on its own, “The Look of Silence” is also the second half of a monumental documentary achievement, specific in its milieu but universal in scope. Here’s hoping the Academy recognizes that in giving Oppenheimer another nomination, Oscar has also given itself a second chance to get its award right.

“Cartel Land,” directed by Matthew Heineman

As bullets fly and meth cookers bubble in tight close-up, “Cartel Land” becomes one of those documentaries that leaves you gasping at the sheer physical courage of the filmmakers. Inspired in part by the immediacy of Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 Oscar nominee “The Square,” director Matthew Heineman decided to examine the Mexican drug cartels by infiltrating the anti-drug vigilante movements on both sides of the border.

In dramatic terms, there is a wild imbalance between the relatively staid Arizona Border Recon in the U.S. and Mexico’s ferocious paramilitary Autodefensas, who become a national phenomenon as Heineman’s serpentine camera watches in awe. The disparity of the stakes faced by the two groups is unfortunately emphasized by Heineman’s decision to juxtapose them through simple crosscuts, as though they’re equal sides of a single coin.

In Arizona, militia leader Tim “Nailer” Foley blathers on in the by-now-familiar parlance of the American Constitutionalist malcontent, occasionally rounding up a handful of illegal border crossers for good measure. Meanwhile in Mexico, the Autodefensas and their charismatic leader Dr. Jose Mireles ignite a populist revolt, fielding a virtual citizens' army against the drug lords before becoming corrupted by infiltrators and by mass adulation.

As “Cartel Land” unspools, Heineman proves shrewd enough to know the better story is on the Mexican side of the border, and Foley’s Arizona group recedes until barely a subplot. In staying close to Mireles, Heineman and company do a superb job of demonstrating not only how revolutions rise but also the many reasons they lose their way. To make their point, Heineman and crew brave so many dangerous situations they leave the viewer constantly on edge. In the year of “The Look of Silence,” I honestly don’t know if “Cartel Land” deserves an Oscar. But if there’s some documentary equivalent to the Medal of Honor or the Purple Heart, consider my vote rendered.

“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom,” directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

The street-level view of a revolution is often among the most riveting as well as the most incomplete. You can’t fault Evgeny Afineevsky and his film “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” for finding the Ukrainian revolt against the Russian puppet President Viktor Yanukovych a compelling subject, but you can ding him — deeply — for his unblinkingly partisan assumptions, which render his film woefully incomplete.

Viktor Yanukovych, as seen on April 27, 2010.
Viktor Yanukovych, as seen on April 27, 2010.

The obvious touchstone for “Winter on Fire” is Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 Oscar nominee “The Square,” which told the story of the Egyptian rebellion that overthrew Hosni Mubarak from the vantage point of mass protests in Tahrir Square. In “Winter on Fire,” the collection point is Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), where radicalized Ukrainians engage in protest and street battles to unseat a corrupt regime.

Like “The Square,” “Winter on Fire” works mostly as triumphalist propaganda, a raw and robust vision of evil vanquished and democracy proclaimed. Both films have long been overtaken by current events, and by political intrigue murkier and more intricate than Afineevsky’s anti-totalitarian politics are able to contain. Compelling in its immediacy, “Winter on Fire” is still somehow an instant period piece.