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There are just 11 days remaining before the Academy’s documentary branch must vote to determine which of 134 documentary features will make it onto a shortlist of 15 from which this year’s five Oscar nominees will be chosen. The general consensus of the dozens of doc-branch members with whom I’ve spoken at various events over the last couple of weeks — Rory Kennedy‘s lunch at AOC in West Hollywood for Point and Shoot‘s Marshall Curry, Pierce Brosnan‘s dinner at his Malibu home for Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, etc. — is that this year’s doc race is as deep and competitive as any in memory.
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That has been my sense, too, as I’ve made my way through a sizable chunk of the longlist, and it is why I was so delighted when the Savannah Film Festival offered to host me and eight documentary filmmakers at the SCAD Museum of Art’s 250-seat theater for a panel discussion about documentary filmmaking, in general, and some of this year’s “Docs to Watch,” as they termed their new festival sidebar, as part of which they screened the 2014 works of each of the documentarians.
The panelists were…
Alan Hicks, a first-time filmmaker, on behalf of Radius’ Keep on Keepin’ On, a film about two great musicians — one an elderly jazz legend (Clark Terry) and the other a young blind piano prodigy (Justin Kauflin) — who become the closest of friends.
Steve James, a best-film-editing Oscar nominee for Hoop Dreams (1994), on behalf of Magnolia’s Life Itself, a film about the remarkable life and remarkable death of America’s most famous and beloved film critic, Roger Ebert.
James Keach, a producer of Walk the Line (2005), on behalf of Area 23a’s Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, a film about the iconic musician Glen Campbell and his decision to keep performing even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Robbie Kenner, a best doc feature Oscar nominee for Food, Inc. (2009), on behalf of Sony Classics’ Merchants of Doubt, a film about the burgeoning industry of people who deliberately mislead the public for the benefit of corporations.
Mike Myers, the actor best known as Wayne Campbell and Austin Powers, on behalf of Radius’ Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, a film about Shep Gordon, a veteran Hollywood manager who has come to the conclusion that kindness is more important than fame.
Gabe Polsky, a producer of Werner Herzog‘s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009) and Douglas McGrath‘s His Way (2011), on behalf of Sony Classics’ Red Army, a film about the social importance of sports all around the world and the always-complicated relationship between Russia and America.
Charlie Siskel, nephew of film critic Gene Siskel and protege of documentarian Michael Moore, on behalf of Sundance Selects’ Finding Vivian Maier, a film about a career nanny who died in 2009 and was then found to have taken, but never developed, some of the 20th century’s most amazing photographs.
And Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner, on behalf of CNN Films’ Documented, a film about his life, his family and his decision to out himself as an undocumented immigrant in order to wage a public campaign for immigration reform.
Over the course of our time together, the panelists discussed how they became a part of the doc world; what motivated them to pursue the subject of their 2014 docs; how they have navigated the tricky territory of finding financing for their 2014 docs; the nature of the greatest challenges that they faced while making their 2014 docs; some unconventional things that featured in some of their 2014 docs (a voice actor, humorous reenactments, animation, etc.); what they hope audiences will take away from their 2014 docs; etc.
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