NEAL CONAN, host:
This week and last, we're talking with the filmmakers behind the documentaries nominated for this year's Academy Award. One more to go. Tomorrow, the director of "Gasland." Today, though, we want to focus on how these films get nominated in the first place, how winners get chosen, that comes amid surprise that "Waiting for Superman," this year's most popular documentary did not get a nomination. Davis Guggenheim directed a film which explores the state of the U.S. public education system and focuses a lot on reform efforts of then-D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Former Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools): You wake up every morning and you know that 46,000 kids are counting on you, and that most of them are getting a really crappy education right now.
Mr. DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (Director, "Waiting for Superman"): So you think most of the kids in D.C. are getting a crappy education right now?
Ms. RHEE: Oh, I don't think they are. I know they are.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. RHEE: There is a complete and utter lack of accountability for the job that we're supposed to be doing, which is producing results for kids.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: What makes a documentary work for you? Is it the politics, the issue, the style? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR arts critic Bob Mondello joins us now in Studio 3-A. He reviews films for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION, Bob.
BOB MONDELLO: It's good to be here.
CONAN: And "Waiting for Superman" was ahead in the Oscars promotions race, more widely released than any of the others, among the highest grossing documentaries of 2010.
MONDELLO: Who cares?
CONAN: So what happened?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONDELLO: Well, the thing is - I mean, you know, a few years ago, "Batman" was among the most seen pictures of the year, and it wasn't nominated for Best Picture.
The logic really shouldn't be about commercial success. I mean, I understand why people want it to be. But documentaries, especially, are a rare breed of film and they're voted on by a much smaller group of the Academy than the other films, and that is a big chunk of that. Do you know how this works?
CONAN: Well, we did some of it last year, but remind us.
MONDELLO: Okay. Basically, the documentary category is voted on by documentarians, people who make the documentaries themselves, and it's not voted on by the general membership.
And so Best Documentary means a real respect from your peers, obviously. But it's a fairly small group of people doing the selecting. They narrow it down to about - I think, it's 15 pictures.
MONDELLO: And then, they narrow it again down to five. And "Waiting for Superman" made the first cut but didn't make the second.
CONAN: You've had though, documentarians like Morgan Spurlock, now a member...
CONAN: ...of the Academy, saying wait a minute. The requirement to vote on Best Picture, you have to go to see it in a theater...
CONAN: ...as opposed to seeing it on a screener, which you can do, he says, when I'm voting for the...
MONDELLO: "The King's Speech."
CONAN: Or Best Picture.
MONDELLO: Exactly. All - basically, documentarians want their pictures to be seen on a big screen and...
CONAN: Well, everyone wants to be seen their pictures...
CONAN: ...on the big screen.
MONDELLO: Well, I think there's - I won't - it's up to them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONDELLO: It's what they want to do. At this point, you can now do it on a 60-inch screen at home without much trouble anyway, but I -personally, my reaction is that documentaries - the restriction is that you have to have seen all five of them and that you have seen all five of them on a big screen. And that could really limit how many people are voting in a very small group to begin with. So it is kind of a problem. Spurlock's right.
CONAN: Even if you set up - voted for the nomination because those you could watch on a screener, on your computer?
MONDELLO: That's right.
CONAN: Interesting. There are other categories - there's questions that always surround documentaries. Among them, what is a documentary? What does it have to be to be eligible? And some speculate that, well, maybe "Waiting for Superman" didn't make it because of a scene that was staged, but there was a film nominated despite a lot of questions about its authenticity.
Just yesterday, we talked with Jaimie D'Cruz, the producer of "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a film directed by the elusive British street artist, Banksy, who appears in the film as a silhouette in a hoodie and his face is completely blacked out and his voice is distorted.
(Soundbite of movie, "Exit Through the Gift Shop")
BANKSY (Artist): I never let anybody film anything before. I said he could film me, putting my hands from behind me under the condition that (unintelligible) afterwards.
CONAN: Well, whatever he said.
MONDELLO: With the right effect, we could have Banksy here in the studio and I could do his voice. I mean, the problem with that is you don't really know. And I think, as a practical matter, people have - when I saw the picture, no one was sure. I'm not sure that they're sure now. And the idea that Banksy might come and accept his award...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And what kind of tuxedo will he wear?
MONDELLO: Exactly. Well, a hoodie, presumably. But it's - it becomes pretty tricky. I think that - I - my own personal feeling is that a documentary, like almost any other kind of picture, ought to take you in a journey, that you ought to learn something that is kind of remarkable. And the pictures that were nominated all do that. I mean, one way or another. With "Waiting for Superman," I felt less like that. It was true. And I think that's part of the reason that the documentarians probably put it aside.
CONAN: And most of these films are very much issue movies.
MONDELLO: Oh, yeah. Well, I - actually, the one that really moved me -and I just watched it again last night - is "Waste Land," which is just - what an exquisite piece of filmmaking. And it's not just about making garbage into art, it's about the people on - who work on this - in this incredible landfill in Brazil. And it's just emotionally wrenching. It's a beautiful picture.
CONAN: This is Lucy Walker's film, where she follows the Brooklyn-based artist, the Brazilian-American artist, Vik Muniz, as he begins an unorthodox art project in his former homeland.
(Soundbite of movie, "Waste Land")
Mr. VIK MUNIZ (Artist): What I really want to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials that they deal with every day and not just any material. The idea I have for my next series is to work with garbage.
CONAN: And I will agree with you, that the people, the pickers are fantastic and fascinating. I, honestly, didn't think of it as much of a film, to tell you the truth.
MONDELLO: Oh, my god. I was so moved by it. Maybe you had to see it on a big screen.
CONAN: Big screen?
MONDELLO: (Unintelligible) of it.
CONAN: I saw it on my TV set at home. Let's go and get some callers on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael is on the line, with us from San Francisco.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. I would like to say that what I like in documentaries are basically the - I mean, there are so many documentaries that we can see. But I want to see the visuals, the sound, the presentation to be very - of a high caliber. I also would like - you know, usually docs have a lot of interviews. But what I don't like in many docs is that we see the point of view of the person making the documentary. Instead of presenting us the various sides - complexity of an issue, they kind of - many documentarians want to present their view.
MONDELLO: You want even-handed. That's so 10 years ago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And that's so post - pre-Michael Moore.
MONDELLO: Yeah. I think what's happened lately, is that documentaries that push an agenda, that have a point of view, have proven very popular at the box office. Michael Moore's pictures, all of them, and the "An Inconvenient Truth" being terrific examples of that.
CONAN: And this year's nominee along that - those lines, might be the film "Inside Job."
(Soundbite of movie, "Inside Job")
Mr. CHARLES FERGUSON (Director, Writer and Producer, "Inside Job"): What fractions were from Wall Street?
Ms. KRISTIN DAVIS (Former Brothel Operator): Of the higher-end clients, probably 40 to 50 percent.
Mr. FERGUSON: And were all the major Wall Street firms represented? Goldman Sachs?
Ms. DAVIS: Lehman Brothers. Yeah. They're all in there.
CONAN: So that was a - well, Wall Street prostitute speaking about...
CONAN: ...some of her clients in Charles Ferguson's film, "Inside Job," with the got you editing and the point of view of Michael Moore.
MONDELLO: Oh, yeah. And makes you so mad by the end - although the style is not really of Michael Moore, because Michael Moore's doing a lot of this as funny.
CONAN: Well - yes.
MONDELLO: And this is, trust me, not funny. I mean, this is - you get angry and angrier watching this picture, which is - I think it's a legitimate point of view for a filmmaker to take, especially when he's working in the aftermath of the biggest - the economic collapse in the world's history - in 70 years.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Carol. Carol with us from Hot Springs in Arkansas.
CAROL (Caller): Hi, there. I am at the home of the oldest documentary film festival in the United States. We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year.
CONAN: Well, congratulations.
CAROL: Yes, thank you. And I would say that what I look for is the honesty and the passion. And we get - we screen about a 100 films during our festival each year, 100 to 120. And we do get complaints, as this young man said, about not even-handedness or people don't consider even-handedness. But what I love about ours is we don't give - do awards. And I have noticed over the past several years the change, where the gentleman that said, your reviewer...
CAROL: ...that they are doing feature-length films now, because that's how they can get commercial success. In the past, we would screen films that were 10 minutes, 12 minutes, you know, 22 minutes or whatever. And you see fewer and fewer of those. But what we do see here and what I love about it, is that the filmmakers will come, the directors will come, and they like to be part of it and be with the audience. So they come and screen their film and then they take - we have Q and A's, we have workshops and what have you.
CONAN: And that happens at a lot of the festivals, Bob Mondello, but...
MONDELLO: Yeah. The kind of wonderful thing - I mean, frankly, as a critic, that's one of the things you love to do, is to get to talk to the audience a little bit, too, because we don't ordinarily get out among the public.
CAROL: Well, the difference I see in what you're talking about in films these days, is as I say, the need for it to be a commercial success.
MONDELLO: Yeah. Well, I think...
CAROL: They're much longer than they used to be.
MONDELLO: You're right. And sometimes, that is - it's - they're extended beyond the real length of time that you need to articulate something about a subject. On the other hand, I can understand - I mean, you know, there are so many venues for the shorter films now on television in a variety of different channels...
MONDELLO: ...that there are other places that these pictures can play.
CONAN: But the - and Carol, thanks very much for the call and continue, good luck to the Hot Springs film festival.
CAROL: Thank you so much. We appreciate it.
CONAN: But the - there are a lot of festivals, for example, Sundance, where if your documentary wins at Sundance - and I think the entry this year that falls into that category is the film about the platoon in Afghanistan, "Restrepo."
(Soundbite of documentary, "Restrepo")
Specialist MISHA PEMBLE-BELKIN (U.S. Army): To my family, I never really told them much until about halfway into the deployment. I didn't tell them when Vimoto died. I didn't tell them when Sergeant Padilla lost his arm. I didn't tell them when Pisak got shot. I didn't tell them when Restrepo got killed. And then when Restrepo got killed, it was a few day's before my mom's birthday also. So I had to suck it up when I called my mom on her birthday.
CONAN: That's Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, talking about his experiences in Afghanistan. Interesting, that film got nominated. Another film about Afghanistan did not.
MONDELLO: You're thinking "The Tillman Story"...
MONDELLO: ...which is also a terrific picture and which made me, in many ways, angrier than this one did. That one is about - "The Tillman Story" is about the cover-up in the - during the last administration - of the events surrounding Pat Tillman, a professional football player's death in Afghanistan.
This one is a - they spent close to a year in the field with these men, and it shows. You feel as if there was an intimacy in "Restrepo," that you're just sort of astonished that you could get. And actually, that's one of the strengths of "Waste Land" as well, because they spent a year, almost two years, making the picture.
You sense that the filmmakers and the - and their subjects bonded in a way that is certainly unusual in what we see in television and things like that, in other forms of documentary.
CONAN: In our Website, you can check out our interviews with, so far, four of the documentary filmmakers nominated for the Academy Award this year. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're talking with NPR arts critic Bob Mondello. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Sue on the line, Sue with us from San Francisco.
SUE (Caller): Oh, hi. You know, I like documentaries that are even-handed, although I know that they're kind of hard to come by. But I just have to say that that "Superman" movie that didn't get nominated - I'm glad it didn't. I didn't see the movie, but I saw the Oprah Winfrey episode on the film. And it was so one-sided, so much against the public schools.
One of the filmmakers literally said that 95 percent of all problems in the schools were the results of bad teachers, and right away that told me that this was not a good movie. And I soon found out that the filmmakers left out lots and lots of information about teachers and public schools. They didn't show any of the good, successful public schools in the film. So I'm glad it wasn't nominated, and I hope that filmmakers try to make their documentaries more even-handed. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.
CONAN: Sue, thanks very much. To be fair, every documentarian leaves a lot of material out of their 90-minute film.
MONDELLO: And also, it's not entirely fair to judge that. But I'm not a big fan of that movie, let me just say that. But I don't think it's fair to judge it without having, you know, seen the whole thing. The portions of it, they show in interview shows, are going to be by - of necessity -very short and very one-sided.
But I kind of agree with you overall that the picture was - it's not that it was biased. It's that it was weighted in a way that felt false to me. And not false vis-a-vis the facts, but false in a storytelling, in a narrative way, that it was frustrating to watch in that respect.
CONAN: A lot of people commented on the necessity or possibility of commercial success. This is relatively new in the documentary field, I guess, going back to Michael Moore's success over the past decade or so - unless you want to go back to Robert Flaherty.
MONDELLO: Right. What is it? Was it "Nanook of the North"?
CONAN: "Nanook of the North," "Man of Aran." But in any case, how has that changed the industry that all of a sudden you can make a profit with these films.
MONDELLO: Well, chances are that you won't. My presumption is that what really drives a lot of filmmakers is the grants that allow them to make the films in the first place. And those are frequently coming from television stations and/or television networks that show this kind of thing.
And a lot of people who do it, I think, do it for that. The idea that you can go beyond that is obviously very attractive. And it spurs a certain kind of film, which is always going to be very ideologically pointed, right? But that isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, everything that's out there. And some of these pictures are just good stories.
I mean, I - again, I keep coming back to "Waste Land" - it is absolutely my favorite of the bunch. But "Waste Land" is a story that it would never occur to me to tell that doesn't seem to have an ideological point in quite the same way as the other pictures, and that I just thought was - it just blew me away. I really felt like I had gone some place I would never otherwise have gone.
CONAN: To be fair, neither Bob Mondello nor I have seen "Gasland."
MONDELLO: That's true.
CONAN: ...the last of the films that we're going to be featuring. So join us tomorrow when we talk to the director of "Gasland," which is about fracking - we'll explain that tomorrow when we come back with the director of "Gasland," one of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for best feature length documentary this year. Bob Mondello, NPR arts critic and reviewer of films for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time today.
MONDELLO: Always a pleasure.
CONAN: We'll also be talking tomorrow about the challenges of single mothers. A new Pew survey shows surprising number of Americans view single moms as bad for society. Join us for that conversation as well. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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