Documentary Nominees: A Night at the Academy with Michael Moore

Even after being in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater a few times before, it still remains immensely enchanting. The ruby red curtains and the looming golden Oscar statues remind you how “honored” you should feel to be amongst their presence, and they succeed in doing so. After viewing selected clips from both the nominated Documentary shorts and features, I felt inspired to be in a room with filmmakers who are not only passionate about their craft, but also about getting their audience to listen.

Michael Moore, best known for his politically progressive films such as Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911 and Sicko, conducted a Q&A after the clips from the films were shown. Inocente by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine centered on a young, homeless girl clinging to the dream of being an artist. Kings Point by Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider explored five senior citizens living at a retirement community who face the challenges of aging. Mondays at Racine by Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan displayed the heartbreaking of women losing their hair and dignity to cancer. Open Heart by Kief Davidson and Cori Sheperd Stern showed us Rwandan children with fatal heart conditions that travel to Salam Centre in Sudan for surgery. Redemption by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill uncovers the massive growth of the “canning” industry in New York City.

Moore began by asking how we could all view the shorts. Most of the Documentary shorts will air on HBO in the future and one producer joked, "Download it and send us $20.” She was only half-kidding. Funding their projects is always a challenge and Andrea Fine explains that their film was privately put together. “It takes a village,” she encourages. But all of these filmmakers share their need to reveal troubling social issues. Moore asks, "We can show all these problems that exist…at any point during the making of the film do you say to yourselves…why? What is our responsibility as documentary filmmakers?”

The panel all agrees that they each have their own reasons for “why” their project needs to be made. For Mondays at Racine it was, “to help people feel less alone.” All of the films reveal structural problems. Why are these problems tolerated? Many of the shorts also have impact campaigns as well. For Open Heart, Rwanda is now taking action. “They saw the film and have committed to build a wing to construct for cardio procedures,” says Davidson.

Perhaps the one common thread that all of the filmmakers agreed upon was Sean Fine’s belief that they are all storytellers and that, “The why comes from all of you.” It’s hard as an audience member not to want to lend these activists your ears.  Gilman felt that after 10 years in the making, King’s Point was absolutely something that needed to be shared; her grandmother lived in the community. More attention should be paid to elders. Soon over “25% of our country will be over 65…there’s a silver tsunami coming.” Albert stresses that his subjects are “out there in the freezing canning 24 hours a day and with a light heart.” It’s a rapidly growing trend and hopefully by watching the truths in Redemption, and in the other shorts, we can work understand and in turn “to make things better.”

The Documentary features were just as eye opening as the shorts. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi bring us 5 Broken Cameras about the Israeli/Palestinian resistance. The Gatekeepers by Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky and Estelle Fialon unites the six original members of the Israeli Shin Bet, having them come forward with never-before-seen shocking truths. How to Survive a Plague, by David France and Howard Gertler, revisits the AIDS movement and how the community came together to accomplish equality. An already widely known film, Searching for Sugar Man by Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn, explores the disappearance of musician Rodriguez. The Invisible War by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering reveals the sexual assaults that go ignored and unpunished in the U.S. Military.

First off, Moore addresses Emad Burnat’s detainment at LAX that occurred earlier the same morning. Apparently “they couldn't wrap their heads around a Palestinian olive gardener being an Oscar nominee.” Burnat stresses, "I go through many check points and many borders…for me it became like normal life. My son asked me why they hold us… what have we done? He was very tired. He was angry an upset because he wants to attend the Oscars.” After he provided the correct documents, Burnat and his family were allowed to enter the country. Moore jokes, “Homeland Security doesn't have Google yet."

Moore asks Davidi about his reaction when he found out about his nomination. “You think it'll be a moment of joy…but I also see sadness in every moment of joy. There's healing and destruction and they're always tied together.” The filmmakers agreed that they were “in a very vulnerable moment…threatening letters are a part of our lives." You could hear the crowd sort of sigh with sadness. Moore attempts to lighten the bleak mood, "We can go out drinking. There's some great spots in LA that will cheer you up." But there’s also hope in Burnat’s voice. People are listening and working to change the Palestinian occupation. Moore says, “Non violence will work and that scares them.” It’s incredible when Burnat explains his lack of experience and the fact that 5 Broken Cameras is his debut project. “I started training like anyone who wants to film. I film for different purposes. I learn by myself on the ground, how to get the idea of making film. What's your message and what's your goal by making this film? It's not easy to live under occupation. 40 years I've been through this. Documentaries are about reality and about truth. My goal is to show the film to my people so we can make change." The film will be released on POV on PBS. Moore is optimistic about grabbing an audience, "If we can get them to watch Downton Abbey, we can get them to watch this."

The Invisible War is equally a call for action. Kirby Dick is already confident in the film’s progress. "The Military use it in sexual assault training. As of today 250,000 military people have seen it." The crowd applauds. How to Survive a Plague is David France’s first documentary, having spent most of his life as a journalist. But he felt that, 

“Many aids documentaries…. all of those capture about half of what happened. What they missed was activism, the gay community who were doing heroic work and who were trying to find a way through the epidemic. They were about what HIV did to the community, there's also what the community did to HIV."  The film uses archival, vintage footage collected from over 33 different sources. France describes, “People were there with their own cameras. You don't see the nightly news. It was being ignored in an almost energetic way." Moore agrees, "Movements don't start with people who are sitting at home in their loafers.” The film shows activist groups tossing ashes of their loved ones on the White House front lawn.

Throughout the Q&A Moore does a spectacular job at keeping the atmosphere from sinking into despair, both intentionally and on accident. One of those unintentionally humorous moments occurred when he questioned Dror Moreh. Moore tells us, “He told me [Dror] was Hebrew for sterile." Dror corrects him, "for sparrow." The crowd dies with laughter. Moore scrambles to recover asking “Mr. Sparrow” how he's been received in his culture after The Gatekeepers was released. "It must really have stirred the pot in Israel." Dror replies, "You don't get those people to speak if they don't want to speak. The timing…. it served what they wanted to say at the end of the day. We served and now when we're standing looking back…enough with occupation. Israel should move towards tying with reconciliation with the Palestinians. They understand that using force…it can never end in a good way unless you reach a political solution.”