by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
On Sunday night, the 81st Academy Awards will air live from Los Angeles. Five documentary films are vying for the coveted Documentary Feature Oscar: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), Encounters at the End of the World, The Garden, Man on Wire, and Trouble the Water.
THE BETRAYAL (Nerakhoon)
The Betrayal is the kind of documentary whose making alone is incredible; for the last 23 years, cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) filmed Laotian immigrant Thavisouk Phrasavath and his family as they struggle to live the American Dream. Kuras seamlessly weaves archival footage she sporadically filmed throughout two decades with Phrasavath’s present-day visit to Laos. The result is a meditation on, in Phrasavath’s words, “What happens to people with no home.”
The specific “betrayal” referenced in the title is ambiguous as the family confronts an unending string of misfortunes. During the late 1970s, Phrasavath and his family were persecuted for their father’s alliance with the United States during the Vietnam War. Assuming their father is dead, the family immigrates to the United States in 1981 – leaving two children behind. During a 1985 interview, Phrasavath laments, “Living in America, we are losing ourselves.” Instead of finding the Promised Land they dreamed of, Phrasavath and his mother are confronted with poverty, conflicting Western values, and the gang violence of 1980s Brooklyn.
The film is charmingly imperfect; much of the footage that comprises the 96-minute documentary was hastily filmed on low-end equipment. But the effect poetically expresses the urgency, frustration, and heartbreak of Phrasavath (who is credited as a co-director) as he attempts to keep his family together while reconciling the past.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Encounters at the End of the World is the latest film from acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Literally filmed at the end of the world, Herzog got the idea for the documentary after seeing underwater footage of Antarctica shot by a friend. After securing permission from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Herzog heads south and begins filming, but makes it clear that this is “not another film about penguins.”
When Herzog arrives in Antarctica, he finds himself at McMurdo Station, the NSF headquarters. During his nonstop narration, Herzog likens the city of over a thousand residents to an ugly mining town.
Before setting out to film the spectacular landscape of Antarctica, Herzog interviews just about anyone who will give him the time of day. What makes the 99-minute film so engaging, aside from Herzog’s very soothing voice, is the cast of characters that call Antarctica home. One man aptly describes himself, and in essence almost everyone Herzog meets at the end of the world, as “full-time travelers, part-time workers…the professional dreamers.” Herzog eventually captures the images that inspired him to travel to Antarctica, but the documentary ultimately lacks the relevance and urgency of the other nominees.
MAN ON WIRE
Man on Wire is a beautiful, if unexpected, ode to the now-fallen Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. In 1974, French performance artist Philippe Petit walked a high wire strung between the two towers, 1,350 feet above the city’s streets. The event, which instantly brought Petit international acclaim, was touted as “the artistic crime of the century.” Director James Marsh uses archival footage, reenactments, and present-day interviews with Petit and his coconspirators (many of whom are very emotional when interviewed) to examine how such a daring and dangerous feat was accomplished.
The 94-minute film, which is based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, builds to the dramatic moment when Petit walks, and even dances, on the high wire precariously suspended between the towers. Arrested by police when he finally comes down from the wire, the later-dismissed charges do nothing to dampen Petit’s manic jubilation.
Man on Wire is more than a real-life heist drama. It is a thoughtful and deep character study of Petit, whose quixotic obsession with the Twin Towers began as a child. It is also an emotional exploration of the people who made Petit’s dream a reality, whether he is ultimately capable of crediting them for their support or not. When asked why he did it, Petit simply responds, “There is no why.”
TROUBLE THE WATER
Trouble the Water criticizes the government’s painfully inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and, more importantly, captures what is was like to be in New Orleans when the levees broke. Documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who have both worked with Michael Moore) flew to New Orleans two weeks after Katrina decimated the city. While visiting a Red Cross Shelter they fortuitously met Lower Ninth Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. The Roberts did not evacuate New Orleans, because, as Kim says, they “couldn’t afford the luxury.”
Instead the Roberts stayed and, with a video camera Kim bought for $20 on the street just before Katrina hit, filmed their struggle to survive. Kim, a former drug dealer and aspiring musician with a very strong religious faith, is the documentary’s spunky heroine; even in the middle of the storm she is funny, at one point narrating, “Katrina - she’s a bad chick.”
Lessin and Deal’s post-hurricane interviews and footage are interesting, but the heart of the 90-minute film is the unforgettable raw footage filmed by the Roberts. The harrowing images of Kim and her neighbors as they swim in the ever-rising flood waters from her attic to a neighbor’s two-story house so they won’t drown is enough to haunt your dreams. Their footage is undeniably what made this documentary Oscar-worthy.
In the past, I have not accurately predicted Academy Award winners, or even nominees. If I were voting, it would be difficult to choose between The Betrayal and Trouble the Water – I found myself thinking about both films days, even weeks after I saw them. If Trouble the Water comes out on top, it will be because of the incredible raw footage filmed by the Roberts, but Lessin and Deal would take the gold statue home. While I enjoyed all of the documentaries I saw, Encounters at the End of the World lacked the timeliness and resonance of the other films. But don’t count this one out because Herzog is the most famous filmmaker nominated this year – and name recognition does mean something at the Oscars.
*Writer’s note: I was not able to see The Garden as of press time. The film has not yet had a wide theatrical release, and I could not obtain a copy from the publicist or director.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.