Going ‘Undefeated’: Interviewing an Oscar Nominee

This has been a difficult week for many reasons, mostly because of my paternal grandfather’s passing at the age of 86. But it’s also the week preceding the Academy Awards, one of the highlights of my year no matter what.

This year, I started the week before the Oscars by interviewing current Documentary Feature nominee Dan Lindsay about his film, Undefeated, the True/False Film Fest and how he became enraptured with the documentary medium. Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my life goals is to attend the Academy Awards. I don’t care if I’m a seat-filler—I have just always wanted to be in Hollywood for the biggest night in entertainment. And so to interview Dan Lindsay, a 2001 MU graduate and now an Oscar nominee, is as close as I’ve gotten so far.

Lindsay, originally from Rockford, Ill., went to the University of Missouri to study advertising, but he ended up studying finance and some theatre. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles where he hoped to get some sort of production work, he told me. At a Kinko’s (because there were actual Kinko’s back then…I used to love hanging out at Kinko’s and making copies when I was 4 and 5), Lindsay met a guy with showbiz connections. When 9/11 happened, that contact he met asked if he’d be interested in driving from Los Angeles and New York to make a documentary, and that’s how things began for him.

I’d say more, but I think you should just listen to the interview itself—it’s only the first part of a two-part interview series I produced for KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia, Mo.


70 Years of Documentaries at the Oscars

Last fall, I edited a short video with clips from pretty much every Oscar-winning documentary since the category’s inception in the early 1940s. I’m thinking about re-editing it with footage from this year’s nominees, but I have been quite occupied with homework, reporting and preparing for the Gass Awards and the Academy Awards. The documentary category started out, ostensibly, to honor achievements in chronicling World War II. Consider the first documentary winner:Churchill’s Island. The British Ministry of Information also received recognition for “its vivid and dramatic presentation of the heroism of the RAF in the documentary film, Target for Tonight.” It was a different time, to be sure, much different from the era decades later that produced films which vehemently opposed the Vietnam War.

Thematically, the Academy originally favored World War II and nature documentaries, which are really the same thing at their core. Only in the mid-1950s did films like Helen Keller in Her Story and Men against the Arctic receive any sort of recognition. The Academy proved it could be timely with its 1964 documentary short winner, Nine from Little Rock, the first of Charles Guggenheim’s four Oscars. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong, but more often than not, the films reflect contemporary cultural or social concerns. I’ve been following the Oscars with intensity since 1998, but I didn’t start caring about the documentary category until I saw a Penelope Spheeris film package during the 2002 ceremony. Michael Moore’s controversial win and speech the following year cemented my interest in and respect for the documentary category, and it has only grown since that night.

The documentary categories are changing—new rules stipulate that contenders must be advertised in prominent New York and Los Angeles publications prior to and during their theatrical run in those cities. Apparently, the rest of the country doesn’t matter. But I digress.

This year’s documentary feature category is one of the more unpredictable ones in recent memory. It has usually been one of the first categories I can nail down once the nominees are announced. I tweeted Kristopher Tapley, who maintains the awards blog In Contention, asking him which film was most likely to win. He replied that If a Tree Falls and Undefeated are the current favorites. He said the former is more likely, but I’m not so sure about the category this year. There are some great documentaries on the list, but there are also some that were puzzlingly left out in the cold.

My proposal? Expand the documentary feature category, and present the docs later in the night.

True/False: Can I See All of Them?

Earlier this week, the True/False Film Fest released its schedule for this year’s four-day documentary extravaganza. For the first time in three years, I’ll be attending the festival. (I missed it in 2010 because it was the same weekend as the Academy Awards and last year because I was in Washington, D.C.)

Courtesy of True/False

Not only that, but I also received a pass for one of my Christmas presents last year, so I’m going to try to get to as many films as possible. And that’s my problem…I want to go to as many as possible, but there are simply too many of them. I tend to favor documentaries that embrace reality, rather than those that insist upon their own creativity and artistic license. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate these films, but they’re simply not my cup of tea. At any rate, this is my first film festival experience of any kind, and I intend to make it to as many films as possible.

As I’m in the process of putting together a documentary of my own (with my peers), I hope these films might provide me with the creative energy to make our project interesting and fresh.

I have a preliminary schedule of films, but I’m wondering—are there any documentaries at 2012 True/False that I simply MUST see?

J’ai eu une idée cet après-midi: A la mode française

As I wrote last week, I’m in the process of working on a documentary about Special Olympics athletes in Columbia, Mo. I think the project is headed in a promising direction, and I’m looking forward to telling the story of some of the athletes and their families. This isn’t a documentary about the Special Olympics, about basketball or about sports in general. This is about the athletes’ story—their obstacles, their families and their lives. I’ve watched a fair amount of sports documentaries recently, but I’m less inclined to go the route of, say, Hoop Dreams for this documentary.

Instead, the 2002 French documentary Etre et avoir is a really great example of storytelling I’d like to emulate. Set in a rural French primary school classroom, the documentary was initially supposed to be just an educational film on the French education system. The filmmakers ended up following a handful of endearing, memorable children around the school and their homes. I first saw this film in a high school French class, and for some reason, I had been expecting it to be dull and plodding. Not so.

Etre et avoir‘s style is sparse, but generally strikes a masterful balance between playful and stark themes of education, family and love.

It challenges common American assumptions and stereotypes about the French, but it also captures what growing up is like for everyone. That’s the goal with this documentary—to make it about something to which everyone can relate.