Oscar Docs: A Look At The Nominees

The Best Documentary category at the Academy Awards is always a great window into the human experience and this year is no different.

This year’s nominations range from stories about the justice system to international politics. The first up in this piece, though, is all about the importance of art in society. It’s also one of the best documentaries of this bunch.

Faces Places

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“Faces Places” is a collaborative effort by filmmaker Agnes Varda and photographer JR, where they travel through rural France and meet several individuals. During their travels, they meet people from many different backgrounds and take their photographs, which they then plaster across industrial sites and buildings in the countryside.

Director Agnes Varda and Photographer JR collaborated to make a documentary about art and its relation to people. Courtesy Cine Tamaris

The film is hypnotizing in its tranquility. The picture is a calming, peaceful experience to sit through, with beautiful cinematography to look at and the development of an odd couple friendship to witness. At the same time, the film is quite compelling in how it gives a spotlight to rural, blue collar workers and explores the connection between art and the human condition.

As a film, the documentary feels like a series of vignettes, as each place the two artists visit has its own story.

Last Men in Aleppo

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The most heartbreaking film of 2017 was “Last Men in Aleppo,” which follows members of a rescue unit made up of citizens who’ve become known as the White Helmets. The movie follows their efforts to rescue victims of the Syrian Civil War. Their work often follows airstrikes, where they have to work desperately to save people from rubble in a seemingly destroyed city.

“Last Men in Aleppo” follows members of the Syria Civil Defence, a group of citizens who conduct rescues and have come to be known as the White Helmets. Courtesy Aleppo Media Center
While there have been plenty of politics surrounding the Syrian situation, “Last Men in Aleppo” focuses on the more human elements. The film does this by looking into the lives of the people in the city , such as Khaled Omar Harrah, a man simply trying to protect his family and help his community. By doing so, the film makes a viewer deeply hope for some kind of solution that ends the bloodshed in the situation as the ones who are suffering the most are just people just trying to live their lives.

This is made apparent in how the film shows the day-to-day life of Harrah spending time with his family. The movie also shows just how desperate the situation is, displaying the destruction caused by the conflict and the limited resources and manpower the White Helmets have to prevent casualties. It’s a film where an audience becomes instantly engaged and invested in the work these people do and the bravery they display.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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“Abacus” was distributed and broadcast by the PBS series Frontline. As a huge fan of the long-running series, I was exceptionally happy that it’s been nominated. The film tells the story of the Sung family, who own and operate the Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York. In the years following the 2008 financial crash, the bank was accused of mortgage fraud and faced criminal charges. The movie follows the Sung family banding together to defend themselves in the U.S. justice system.

Jill, Vera and Thomas Sung, who operate Abacus Federal Savings Bank, appear in court. Courtesy Blue Ice Films
In typical Frontline fashion, “Abacus” does a tremendous job with thoroughly detailing and explaining the facts and data as well as featuring interviews from every side of the situation. However, where the movie really hits its stride is in how it portrays the Sung family.

Their coming together, arguing over the case and general banter all go very far in humanizing the family and make them compelling characters to root for. Despite being a larger than daily life situation, with a high stakes law case going on, the documentary feels very grounded thanks to how relatable the family is.

Another important factor in the film is how it points out that this smaller bank was the only financial firm that was brought to court by the government following the housing crisis the crashed the world economy.

Icarus

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“Icarus” was one of two Best Doc pictures distributed by Netflix in 2017. The film originated as a project by filmmaker Bryan Fogel who was looking to investigate doping in sports and was willing to use performance enhancing drugs himself to show what effects they have. In doing so, Fogel met Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. The film follows their meeting and through interviews, Rodchenkov reveals that the Russian government has orchestrated a major sports doping operation in world competition.

“Icarus” filmmaker Bryan Fogel speaks with Grigory Rodchenkov, who was once head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. Courtesy Alex Productions
The picture is a tale of two halves and starts off a bit slow. While Fogel’s idea to film his doping experiments wasn’t bad, it’s simply not as compelling as the Russian government’s doping operation. As a result, the first half pales in comparison to the second, when the Russian operation is discussed in detail. Additionally, the later parts of the movie are benefited by Rodchenkov, who’s an interesting person to follow.

Another issue I found with “Icarus,” though, was how in depth it went regarding the Russian scandal. The film mostly just explored the 2000s, especially the 2014 Olympics. However, I was left wondering about doping during the Soviet era and if doping continued after the fall of the USSR during the 1990s.

Strong Island

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“Strong Island” is an incredibly personal movie, as it examine’s the death of the filmmaker’s own brother. The movie follows Yance Ford’s investigation into the lead up to his brother’s death, the night he was killed and how practically nothing was done when it came to the prosecution.

Filmmaker Yance Ford in the film “Strong Island.” Courtesy Yanceville Films
“Strong Island” is a very emotional experience to watch, as the director and those interviewed all have to dig into their memories and think about the horrible event in their lives that took a family member. The movie also sheds light on the justice system failing the family, as the killer didn’t seem to go through any sort of legal proceeding.

While “Strong Island” has that going for it, though, it was difficult to follow at times. Despite covering a situation like a murder that has so many details and legal issues, Ford didn’t tell the story in enough of a linear fashion, making the recreation of events through eyewitness interviews feel disjointed This coincides with the film spending too much time exploring subjects that weren’t necessarily important in telling the story of the murder. Additionally, I wish the filmmaker had done more interviews about the location’s justice system in general, maybe by providing data or statistics.

As a result, “Strong Island” was likely my least favorite of this year’s nominees. However, it still has some good qualities that make it at least worth checking out.

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Author: Matthew Liedke

My name is Matthew Liedke. I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, but I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I now write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead where I studied journalism and film. Outside of film, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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