The 5 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Filmmakers Told Us About Their Work

Gfw Staff

With Sunday's Oscars looming, it's time for us to recap the stories (in front of the camera and behind it) from the directors themselves. First up, the five documentarians whose films have been nominated for Best Documentary. (Side note: if Joshua Oppenheimer doesn't win this one we'll be very surprised.)

The Act of Killing
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

"Unprecedented in the history of cinema," is how The Act of Killing’s producer, Werner Herzog (you might have heard of him), describes Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about the Indonesian genocide of the 60s.

Told from the present day point-of-view of the unpunished and politically dominant perpetrators as they saunter around a beautiful country, reenacting their techniques for mass murder, it's a bracing account that has been seized as a human rights tool in Indonesia and beyond. Yet even as it unearths truths previously hidden under fear and corruption, The Act of Killing is disinterested in vilifying its subjects, making the deepest revelations of the film profoundly humanistic.

"The film is loved in Indonesia because it finally exposes the hollowness on which the whole society is built and the rocky foundations of contemporary Indonesian political life. It’s the torturers and the murderers who don’t want the film screened; the survivors and the human rights groups are pushing it."


Cutie and the Boxer
Dir. Zachary Heinzerling

Having bagged Sundance’s Directing Award for his documentary Cutie and the Boxer earlier in 2013, NYC-based 29-year-old filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling is fast-becoming the talk of the town. His acclaimed documentary follows 81-year-old Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko as they struggle to get by in New York City, living in their art-stuffed apartment.

"They’ve somehow maintained what I think is a very precarious existence for way too long. And things in the film seem very desperate but when you’re around them it feels like they’re really optimistic people ... They’re both kind of ageless; that’s what’s really fascinating about them. Noriko could be 15 and 60 simultaneously, you know, she wears pigtails and has white hair. Ushio has like muscles on his ribcage; he’s in better shape than most 20-year-olds."


Dirty Wars
Dir. Richard Rowley

Dirty Wars boldly exposes the ugly, hidden side of America's ever-expanding War on Terror. Its director Rick Rowley, whose previous films have included the feature-length documentaries Zapatista (1999), This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000), Black & Gold (2001) and The Fourth World War (2003), describes the revelations while making his documentary.

"The moment that it happened [the Joint Special Operations Command's public emergence] we were just stunned. This was the covert unit we were tracking, and then all of a sudden they were on national television being celebrated as heroes. If it was a noir crime show, it was the moment where the lead suspect in your case was suddenly named police commissioner. It just turned everything we were doing on its head." 


The Square
Dir. Jehane Noujaim 

Two years in the making, Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim delves into the political maelstrom of Egypt with her politically pertinent Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Opening in January 2011, Noujaim and her crew documented the political protests that found their home in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Following people who still sit at the heart of the revolution three years on, it's not surprising that The Square continues to fuel debate and receive plaudits. 

"This sort of recognition really encourages those on the ground to continue their work in Cairo and across Egypt. It is important that Egyptians take cameras into their own hands and tell their stories."


20 Feet From Stardom
Dir. Morgan Neville


After a career in journalism Morgan Neville turned to film production in 1993 and has developed a speciality in music documentaries. He has been nominated for three Grammy Awards and his latest feature, 20 Feet from Stardom, is one of the films in the running for Best Documentary Feature at Sunday’s Oscars. The film tells the untold story of the anonymous backing singers who’ve shaped popular music but never received the credit for it. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill discuss their lives, careers and what it’s like to have the talent but not the fame in this brilliant, must-see documentary.

"I just love what you can do with music because it’s an underscore of emotions" 


The 86th Academy Awards will take place on 2 March, 2014. Place your bets, guys.

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