News broke mid-week that filmmaker Bill Siegel, Oscar nominated co-director of THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND and director of Emmy-winner THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI, died at the age of 55 due to a heart attack that prior Saturday. Many of his colleagues wrote remembrances at the Kartemquin Films page, and Tom White collected a number of pieces on Siegel and his work at the IDA blog. Meanwhile, THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND co-director Sam Green shared the following on Instagram, “Bill was a lover of life and people and the world and probably got more pleasure from being alive than anyone I’ve ever known. Bill made a number of strong films, carried on deep and lifelong friendships, and also had two kids whom he loved and was thrilled by. The world will miss him badly.”
His friend and collaborator Dave Zirin also warmly remembered Siegel in The Nation, “Bill’s gift is so absolute that I’m pained not only by the loss of a friend and comrade but by the films we are not going to get to see. Bill’s next project was going to be ‘a new documentary that traced the history of the United States Information Agency and the creation of the US government’s internationally broadcast radio station Voice of America, which is regarded by some as a form of propaganda.’ I think Bill was going to use this topic to denounce so much of the bullshit that passes for news in 2018 and link the flooding of “fake news” with government propaganda that serves only the wealthy and powerful. The best possible tribute to Bill Siegel would be for us to pick up the baton and continue that work.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone following the award season happenings that on Saturday night Bing Liu’s MINDING THE GAP was named Best Documentary at the 34th Annual IDA Documentary Awards at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. Other honorees included Floyd Russ’s ZION (available via Netflix), which won Best Short, Chapman Way and Maclain Way’s WILD, WILD COUNTRY, which took home Best Limited Series, and Steve Loveridge’s MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., which won best Music Documentary.
Looking toward the Oscars, Addie Morfoot outlined in Variety how campaign budgets and the influx of participation from streaming services has drastically changed the documentary Oscar race. She begins, “There’s no denying the race for documentary Oscar has changed dramatically in the past decade and even more so in the past five years. The reason for the shift? Money…Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all have deep pockets and aren’t afraid to make that known during Oscar season. (This year Netflix and Hulu boast docs like SHIRKERS, MINDING THE GAP and CRIME + PUNISHMENT)”. In contrast, Christopher Campbell imagined at Nonfics what this year’s Golden Globe doc nominees might have been if the category existed.
While awards season continues to heat up as trudge deeper into the winter season, early December is always host to many best of lists critics of all sorts. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody listed his favorite films of the year without order, including INFINITE FOOTBALL, THE REST I MAKE UP, NOTES ON APPEARENCE, THE OTHER SIDE OF EVERYTHING, POW WOW, as well as other more well known docs among his favorites. Meanwhile in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott ranked theirs, with a quartet of docs taking Scott’s #1 slot. And at Vox, Alissa Wilkinson dropped a list of her top 11 favorite docs, with a few sadly hard to see picks like Sam Green’s scantily performed live production of A THOUSAND THOUGHTS and the minimally screened AMAZING GRACE taking prominence.
Though the week of Thanksgiving is typically slow going for doc news, it is traditionally the week that filmmakers receive the good news that their films have been accepted to the forthcoming edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which means that this past week the rest of us were graced with the 2019 lineup of feature films. “For the 2019 Festival, 112 feature-length films have been selected, representing 33 countries and 45 first-time filmmakers…44% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition are women; 22% are people of color; 5% identify as LGBTQIA+…These films were selected from a record high of 14,259 submissions including 4,018 feature-length films.” Notable new docs to have their world premiere include Penny Lane’s HAIL SATAN, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s ONE CHILD NATION, and Matt Tyrnauer’s WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?.
As is usual, the Slamdance Film Festival revealed its 2019 program in correlation with Sundance’s announcement. Nine documentary features will be shown in competition during the 25th annual edition of the festival.
Last week the AT&T Inc.-owned film and television giant WarnerMedia stunned the film community when it announced that it will be shutting the beloved cinephilic streaming service FilmStruck down at the end of November. In response, over 55,000 fans have signed a Change.org petition in an effort to save the service from disappearing into the void, while a whole host of A-list filmmakers also wrote an open letter “to Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich asking for WarnerMedia to reconsider the decision to pull the plug on FilmStruck on November 29,” reports IndieWire’s Zack Sharf. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Ryan Faughnder suggests that the shuttering of FilmStruck demonstrates the fragility of film history in the face of our reliance on streaming services: “Streaming companies including Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are spending billions of dollars to create the kinds of next-big-thing TV dramas that draw subscribers, and aren’t so interested in hosting vast catalogs of oldies. Compounding the problem, video stores that once facilitated the discovery of esoteric films have mostly vanished, and younger viewers aren’t subscribing to cable bundles, let alone watching Turner Classic Movies. Another constraint is that it’s costly to convert old movies into streaming-friendly formats.”
Responding to the public outcry, The Criterion Collection announced, “If you loved the curated programming we’ve been doing with our friends at FilmStruck, we have good news for you. The Criterion Collection team is going to be carrying on with that mission, launching the Criterion Channel as a freestanding service in spring 2019…The new service will be wholly owned and controlled by the Criterion Collection. We hope to be available in U.S. and Canada at launch, rolling out additional territories over time. Our library will also be available through WarnerMedia’s new consumer platform when it launches late next year, so once both services are live, Criterion fans will have even more ways to find the films they love.”
While the midterm elections, another mass shooting, and word that RBG fell and fractured three ribs were all making headline news this last week, plenty of notable documentary happenings were taking place in the background. On Saturday night in Brooklyn, the third annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards took place, at which “WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? took home the evening’s most prestigious award for Best Documentary as well as Best Director for Morgan Neville and the award for Best Editing. FREE SOLO took home the award for Best Sports Documentary, the award for Best Innovative Documentary and was honored for Best Cinematography…the Best Political Documentary winner was RBG. QUINCY took home the award for Best Music Documentary. There was a tie for Best First Time Director between Bing Liu for MINDING THE GAP and Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster for SCIENCE FAIR.”
Two days prior, the Cinema Eye Honors announced the nominees for its 12th edition, with MINDING THE GAP leading the pack with a total of 7 nominations, tying the record for most nominations in Cinema Eye history. The six films up for the top prize of Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking are BISBEE ’17, HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING, MINDING THE GAP, OF FATHERS AND SONS, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?.
Many of the nominees and award winners thus far turned up in conversation with one another for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Documentary Roundtable. Meanwhile, Anne Thompson noted at IndieWire that “Last year, the Academy documentary branch had to grapple with a record 170 documentary feature submissions for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. This year, it’s not so bad: only 166 were entered. The short list of 15 will be announced, along with eight others for the first time on a single date this year: December 17.”