2017 Oscars: Nominations For Documentary Category Upends Genre NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, about what this year's documentary lineup mean for the art and industry.
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2017 Oscars: Nominations For Documentary Category Upends Genre

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2017 Oscars: Nominations For Documentary Category Upends Genre

2017 Oscars: Nominations For Documentary Category Upends Genre

2017 Oscars: Nominations For Documentary Category Upends Genre

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, about what this year's documentary lineup mean for the art and industry.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, let's talk Oscars. If you're like millions of Americans, you might be spending your Sunday evening tuning into the annual celebration of Hollywood's offerings. And while there's been all the usual buzz around the Best Picture category and the acting awards, we wanted to take a few minutes to talk about this year's documentary nominees.

This year, the documentary category is filled with work that refreshes maybe even upends the genre. For example, one of the nominees "O.J. Made In America" is not a traditional feature-length film, but an eight-hour long miniseries. There's "I Am Not Your Negro," a meditation on race relations through the words of writer James Baldwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JAMES BALDWIN: The future of a negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

MARTIN: "13th" makes the connection between the Amendment abolishing slavery and mass incarceration in the U.S. Last year, I spoke with the film's director Ava DuVernay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AVA DUVERNAY: The idea behind "13th" is to give people that context so that we don't make uninformed statements that we can all work from a place of knowledge to try to get to a place where we just do better as Americans.

MARTIN: The documentary "Life Animated" tells the story of how Disney movies helped an autistic boy learn to communicate. And finally, there's "Fire At Sea" which documents the European migrant crisis from the vantage point of an Italian island in the thick of it. Here's director Gianfranco Rosi from a conversation we had last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GIANFRANCO ROSI: When I was there, Lampedusa became like - almost a microcosm, a metaphor of what Europe is right now, you know? This is a world that we don't know, and we never have really chance of meeting and interacting with. So there's always a separation between our world and this world that is coming.

MARTIN: To learn more about this year's lineup and what it means, we called Nina Gilden Seavey. She's director of the George Washington University Documentary Center. Nina Gilden Seavey, thanks so much for joining us.

NINA GILDEN SEAVEY: Michel, it's great to see you.

MARTIN: You know, it seems as though these films have broken through to the public in a way that documentaries sometimes don't. Do you think that that's true? And why do you think that is?

SEAVEY: Well, I think, first of all, you know, we keep saying and we have been saying since the Civil War with Ken Burns that this is the golden era of documentary. And it's not getting any less golden. In fact, I think people are just consumed by wanting to know real stories. It's not to say that somehow dramatic filmmaking is falling off because it's not. But I think our hunger for stories has gotten so intense that it has driven this industry.

If you take a look, for example, at "O.J. Made In America" - as you say, big, epic documentary - seven and a half hours, five parts. ESPN backed it. Little bit of a question whether it's really television or film. I mean, they did a qualifying run in both New York and LA. But what is the most amazing thing to me is "I Am Not Your Negro," which to be honest - it's about James Baldwin, a writer who many of us have forgotten through the years. Some of us read it in, you know, our English or philosophy classes or whatnot in college. But that film currently is being played in multiplexes, and these are sold-out shows.

And we have never seen this kind of surge of interest of people wanting to understand those words of Baldwin's and the meaning behind what is this issue of race that we have so totally misbegotten?

MARTIN: What do you think this means? I mean, one of the things that, you know, I know is that stylistically all the nominees are very different, and yet they're all kind of breaking through in their own way. And I'm wondering if you think the arrival of players like Netflix and Amazon - does that have something to do with raising the profile of documentaries?

SEAVEY: Well, I think it's a couple of things. One, by the time you get nominated for an Oscar, there - winnowing process of the thousands of films that are out there has already - it's over. And these films are - each one of them truly spectacular. So that sort of goes without saying. But what has happened with Amazon, Netflix, ESPN, HBO, PBS - all of these various kind of players in this field now is that it's been almost like a shot of adrenaline.

And you have, first of all, a lot of people making documentary films which, you know, is - can be a good thing or a bad thing. But it's also upped the game. It means that you cannot rest on your laurels. If you take a look at "13th," I mean, there have been many films about slavery and its aftermath. But Ava DuVernay's approach just sparkles and has meaning in a way that brought it into a larger sort of context. It allowed us to see something that was much more synthetic. So every single one of these has somehow added to the dialogue in ways that could not have been predicted.

MARTIN: And speaking of what perhaps could not have been predicted, the fact that four of the five nominated filmmakers are African-American.

SEAVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you read that, you know, coming on the heels of this debate over the last couple of years over, you know, Oscar so white and the criticism that the Academy has received over its selection process?

SEAVEY: Well, first of all, you have to know that Oscar so white really has to do in that sense with the in front of and behind the camera primarily out of Hollywood. Documentary filmmaking is just a different context than the rest of the filmmaking world. In Hollywood, I always say it's dog eat dog. In documentary I always say it's puppy eat puppy. The stakes are a lot lower. The doors are a lot more open.

We see many, many, many more women in documentary than we would ever see in narrative filmmaking. We see people of color whether they're Asians, African-American, Indians all kinds of people who come to this with a voice because of the barriers to entry are so much lower. In this case, I think this is, you know, sort of a colorblind neutral. These are phenomenal films, and the fact that they are people of color makes us feel richer for the experience.

MARTIN: That's Nina Gilden Seavey. She's the director of the George Washington University Documentary Center. She was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. And if you want to know more about these films, actually several programs at NPR covered all of these films at some point. So you can look for more information about each of the nominees at npr.org.

MARTIN: Nina Gilden Seavey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SEAVEY: Thank you, Michel. It's always a pleasure.

MARTIN: We can start popping the popcorn now.

SEAVEY: I'm on my way to the movie theater.

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