Oscars Documentary Race: It’s All About Blurred Lines

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This story on the documentary feature race first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, whose “Fire at Sea” is competing for Oscars in both the documentary and foreign-language categories, shook his head when talking with TheWrap recently about the state of nonfiction filmmaking. “Right now, the thin line between documentary and fiction is really thinning, thinning, thinning,” he said.

“Which is interesting, and it’s what I love about documentaries. Documentaries have enormous space for experimenting, you know? The challenge of finding a new language, finding a new way of telling stories.”

He’s definitely right about that thin line, which is thinning and blurring in a variety of ways. It’s now blurred between fact and fiction, between documentary and narrative, between film docs and television docs.

“I think nonfiction filmmakers are excited to throw off convention and traditional expectation of length and form and style and to push themselves to challenge previously held notions of what makes a documentary,” filmmaker A.J. Schnack told TheWrap.

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And all of those blurred lines are visible in this year’s awards race.

Category Blurring
Rosi’s film is a cinema vérité gem that uses what he calls “the language of cinema” to tell the story of the island of Lampedusa, where refugees by the thousands arrive on their way from Africa to Europe. It is one of four documentaries competing in the Oscar foreign language race.

The other straight docs are “Ukrainian Sheriffs,” Roman Bondarchuk’s look at two small-town law-enforcement officers in a region changing from Ukrainian to Russian control; and Pietra Brettkelly’s “A Flickering Truth,” which documents the revival of the Afghan film archives.

Luxembourg’s entry, “Voices From Chernobyl,” is a less straightforward doc; it’s a powerful viewing experience in which actors read eyewitness accounts of the nuclear disaster drawn from Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction book, while Pol Crutchen’s camera roams the deserted landscape of Pripyat, and the director also stages sometimes surreal tableau amidst the abandoned cityscapes.

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Doc or not? It might belong in the following category…

Documentary / Narrative Blurring
Here’s where lines are almost erased. In the Oscar documentary race, for instance, Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” is competing for the big prize. The film chronicles indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s preparation to play newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on camera in 1974 — except that the film about Chubbuck for which Sheil is preparing doesn’t actually exist (unlike Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” in which Rebecca Hall plays the role).

Sheil is simply “preparing” for a “role” in a fake movie whose clips are never intended to be anything other than scenes in “Kate Plays Christine”; this “documentary” is documenting a fiction. But the Oscars say it’s a doc, and so did the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors.

Also eligible in those races (though not for the Oscars) is “All These Sleepless Nights,” a coming-of-age “doc” about two teens in Warsaw who often appear to be performing for the cameras. Director Michal Marczak developed scenes through improvisation, brought in a former girlfriend to begin a relationship with one of his subjects and says, “it’s up to other people if they want to call this a documentary.”

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Then there’s the brain-teasing “Houston, We Have a Problem,” which is Slovenia’s entry in the Oscar foreign- language race. It’s a documentary about how a faltering NASA bought the entire Yugoslavian space program in the early ’60s in an effort to jump-start their own program — except that while it looks and acts like a doc, it actually just uses the nonfiction format to show how easily myths and conspiracies can be created and can spread.

Film and TV Blurring
If you like this year’s Oscar doc race, we’ve got some good news: Next year’s Emmy race will look very similar. Among the films that are now competing for Oscars and should soon be competing for Emmys: Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s “Audrie & Daisy” and Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s “Amanda Knox,” all on Netflix; “Defying the Nazis” on PBS; “Tickled,” “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” “Jim: The James Foley Story,” “The Music of Strangers,” “Everything Is Copy” and “Mavis!” on HBO; and “O.J.: Made in America” from ESPN.

This has been going on for a while: Three of the five Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees earlier this year–“Cartel Land,” “Winter on Fire” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” were subsequently nominated for Emmys, as was “The Hunting Ground,” which followed its Oscar song nomination by winning in that category at the Emmys.

Director Brett Morgen told TheWrap that he didn’t like the double-dipping when his doc “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” was campaigned for Emmys in the wake of its Oscar campaign. “I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think you should have to choose one or the other,” he said.

Also Read: Oscars: 145 Documentaries Make the Cut in Crowded Race

A few years ago, the Academy’s Documentary Branch passed new rules designed to keep TV entities like HBO from sneaking their films into theaters for a quiet one-week qualifying run before rolling them out for splashy television premieres. It didn’t stop the practice, though it perhaps reduced the number of films that HBO tried to qualify that way.

But in a field in which TV money has often been more easily accessible than film-studio money, the Academy rules can’t keep out docs that were financed by and made for television networks as long as it’s possible to qualify those films via theatrical runs. And particularly with the rise of Netflix, which really wants to win an Oscar and is willing to spend what it takes to get one, the field is awash in TV-bred films.

The biggest example of TV/film confusion this year is probably ESPN’s “O.J: Made in America,” which was financed by the network and aired as a five-part installment in its 30 for 30 series. Before its TV airing, director Ezra Edelman edited it into a single seven-and-a-half hour theatrical version that premiered at Sundance and had qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York; it got around the rule requiring four screenings a day, an impossibility given its length, by booking multiple screens in the same venues.

Also Read: ‘OJ: Made in America’ and ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Top Cinema Eye Honors Documentary Nominations

Will voters accept “O.J.” as a theatrical experience rather than a TV miniseries? Probably — and if so, the move will surely draw at least a measure of criticism. “I don’t know how it got in,” one Oscar-nominated documentary director told TheWrap. “And after this year, I bet they change the rules so something like that won’t happen again.”

Or maybe the Academy will simply give up and embrace those blurry lines. “More and more, support for new thinking [in nonfiction filmmaking] is coming from people who have traditionally been thought of as part of a television landscape: HBO, Netflix, ESPN, Showtime, etc.,” said Schnack.

“The Academy is certainly free to create rules for entry — but if these networks and platforms can push boundaries and fulfill the Academy’s eligibility requirements, I think it’s good for all involved.

“I know that if I were a member of the Academy, I’d want to be dead center within some of the most exciting developments in the nonfiction field, no matter where they were coming from.”

Read more of TheWrap’s The Race Begins Oscars Issue.

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‘Christine’ Wins Indie Box Office, ‘Certain Women’ With Kristen Stewart is No. 2

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The warmly reviewed “Christine,” starring Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall and directed by Antonio Campos, won the specialty box office this weekend.

Distributed by The Orchard, the film earned $14,046 from one location this weekend. Its 83 percent Rotten Tomatoes score reflects many accolades directed at Hall’s performance as real-life ambitious newswoman Christine Chubbuck, whose struggle with depression ended with her suicide during a live television broadcast.

IFC’s “Certain Women” came in a close second with a per theater average of $13,046 from five theaters for an estimated total of $65,230.

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Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Rosanna Arquette and Laura Dern, the Kelly Reichardt film focuses on three women who are imperfectly blazing trails as their lives intersect in small-town America. It has received glowing reviews with a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Animated drama from Japan, “Miss Hokusai,” earned the No. 3 spot with $12,521 on average from two locations for a total of $25,042. Based on true events, the film revolves around Japanese artist and painter Katsushika Hokusai, as seen through the eyes of his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei. It has a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

STX thriller “Desierto” fared well in 73 locations, earning an average of $6,164 per theater for a total of $450,000. The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a Mexican worker who is being hunted by a vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as he attempts to cross the border into the U.S. in order to reunite with his wife and daughter. It has a 59 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Eammon Films drama “Coming Through the Rye” earned an estimated $4,000 from one location. Starring Alex Wolff and Chris Cooper, the film is based on true events of a boy’s search for reclusive author J.D. Salinger. It has won raves from critics, as reflected in its 92 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

Finally, Roadside Attractions drama “Priceless,” which hasn’t been rated on Rotten Tomatoes, made $703,200 from 303 locations for a per theater average of $2,321. The film involves a truck driver who faces a difficult choice once he discovers the contents of his deliveries.

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‘Christine’ Review: Rebecca Hall Gives Commanding Performance as Suicidal TV Reporter

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Unlocking the puzzle of suicide is the dramatic engine fueling “Christine,” Antonio Campos’s darkly probing character study of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Fla., newscaster who made national headlines when she shot herself in the head on live television. Slowly pulling the strands of a fraying psyche as Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) deals with thwarted ambition, convulsive moods and crushing loneliness, this is exquisitely made downer porn, girded by a strong cast.

But while “Christine” the movie may leave you in a coldly analytical space about sad people — even its dollops of humor have a chilliness — Christine the woman stays with you, thanks to a career-best performance from Hall that’s stark, thoughtful, and mesmerizing. She transforms the highbrow, zoo-like wallow of her surroundings into something resolutely human and heartbreaking.

If you didn’t know who Chubbuck was and how her story would end, you’d have a pretty good idea from “Christine” that life was a pretty difficult thicket for this smart misfit to navigate. As we first get to know her, though, she’s awkward yet dogged, an idealistic local reporter eager to fight her ratings-obsessed boss Michael (Tracy Letts) over keeping her civics-minded “Suncoast Digest” segment a place for pieces that matter, like zoning controversies.

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She practices her interview technique (on an imaginary President Nixon no less), and pointedly asks a friendly colleague (Maria Dizzia, “While We’re Young”) if she nods too sympathetically. In her spare time, Christine even performs puppet shows for sick hospital kids. Though she’s a stiff presence on and off camera, and isn’t good at shielding discomfort in her face or gait, there’s an attractive grit to the intelligence that drives her career hopes.

Privately, however, Christine suffers from an ever-growing self-doubt, fed by her mother’s (J. Smith-Cameron, “Margaret”) subtle criticism and romantic success, and by Christine’s workplace crush on ex-jock anchorman George (Michael C. Hall). It doesn’t help that Michael’s push for juicier, “if it bleeds it leads” stories exacerbates her clashes with him, while the station owner (John Cullum, “Northern Exposure”) threatens to pull the plug even as he’s poaching talent for the Baltimore market.

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Campos is part of the filmmaking collective that brought us “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (directed by “Christine” producer Sean Durkin) and “Simon Killer” (Campos’s last film), movies marked by an unsentimental darkness. “Christine” is no exception, and their fixed gaze on so damaged a soul isn’t for everybody. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich are exacting clinicians, careful to a fault in constructing their downhill maze so that one woman’s troublesome mental health is the focus, even as external factors like casual sexism, changing media mores, and increasingly bewildered colleagues do their part as well.

The smoke-filled, clubby air of a 1970s news station in turmoil and the choked, sullen-teen nature of Chubbuck’s home life are effectively realized through Scott Kuzio’s production design and Joe Anderson’s cinematography, which recall the shadowy, grainy pall of era-specific Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula dramas. The acting adds just the right color, from Letts’s patrician contempt to Michael C. Hall‘s patronizingly flirty tone.

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The movie is Rebecca Hall‘s, though, and it’s a satisfyingly imaginative answer to this year’s other Christine Chubbuck indie, “Kate Plays Christine,” a non-fiction/fiction hybrid that asks if an actor can ever really embody a real person’s narrative. When she’s not suggesting the weight of the world in a crinkled mouth or furrowing brow, Hall is calibrating Chubbuck’s internal disquiet in movingly odd gestures: interrupting a happy couple in a restaurant as if they were specimens worth interviewing, or wandering a work party like a lost child. When she implores her boss to let her report the human side of the catastrophe coverage he so desires, what’s wrenchingly implicit in Hall’s eyes is that human misery is a given she knows all too well; it’s an understanding that the world lacks, that she needs to investigate to save herself.

Hall is so committed and good, she manages to telegram Chubbuck’s most dire choice with the merest change in demeanor, affecting a performed calmness on her secret big day that’s almost eerie. Though Campos’s laser-like focus on Chubbuck as a woman on the verge can sometimes give “Christine” the air of a horror movie — the way he occasionally films Hall, you half expect doors to slam shut telekinetically — he shows welcome restraint depicting his protagonist’s final act, and Hall wisely plays it like a dimming light hastening its extinguishing, rather than as a nut eager for her sensationalized sendoff.

In Chubbuck’s last words to an unsuspecting world before pulling out that gun, she told viewers she was bringing them an “attempted” suicide. Ever the reporter, she had to use that word if, technically, she didn’t truly know the outcome. But it’s also a perfect descriptor for the portrayal Hall memorably lays out, of a life Christine Chubbuck only ever felt she’d attempted, not fulfilled.

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Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall to Star in Sony’s ‘Professor Marston & The Wonder Women’

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Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions has nabbed the worldwide rights to the biopic “Professor Marston & The Wonder Women,” an individual with knowledge of the project told TheWrap.

Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote are set to star in the film written and directed by Angela Robinson. The film began production this week.

The true story details the life of William Moulton Marston (Evans), who created Wonder Woman in 1941, and his wife and fellow inventor Elizabeth (Hall). Heathcote stars as a former student, Olive Byrne, of Marston’s with whom the married couple had a polyamorous relationship. The log line also adds that Marston was the inventor of the lie detector, and the inspiration behind Wonder Woman was his wife and Byrne.

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Amy Redford, Andrea Sperling and Terry Leonard are producing, while “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway is executive producing with Boxspring Entertainment’s Clare Munn.

Evans currently stars in Universal and DreamWorks’ “The Girl on the Train” and recently finished production on Disney’s live action “Beauty and the Beast.” He is represented by WME and Shelter PR.

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Hall was last seen in “The BFG” and stars as Christine Chubbuck in “Christine,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and sold to The Orchard. She is represented by WME and ID Public Relations.

Heathcote recently starred in “The Neon Demon” and will star as Christian Grey’s ex girlfriend in “Fifty Shades Darker” next year. She is also represented by WME, as well as Vanlden Public Relations and Consulting.

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