The documentary community breathed a deep sigh of relief last night when one of its own, Laura Poitras, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature with her stirring film, Citizenfour. She was the clear favorite and also the one most favored by fellow doc filmmakers, having connections from New York City to Sundance, being a highly respected filmmaker (My Country, My Country, The Oath), teacher (Duke, Yale), MacArthur Fellow and all-around beloved individual.
The subject matter of her film, Edward Snowden and the invasion on privacy by the National Security Agency, was hard news and political, which made it the first such winner in several years. The last outwardly political documentary to win the Oscar was 2010’s Inside Job, about the inner workings of the financial crisis.
While Poitras’s speech was solid — she started by referencing the documentary community, thanked the film’s supporters and gave some straightforward commentary on issues of privacy and democracy — it felt like a missed opportunity. Poitras was stiff, and who can blame her? Not everyone can be Michael Moore, who delivered the greatest documentary Oscar acceptance speech ever, when he was spot-on about the impending war in Iraq.
Host Neil Patrick Harris made the more memorable comment about the Citizenfour win, when he said, “The subject of Citizenfour, Edward Snowden, could not be here tonight for some treason.” It was a play on words, a joke, yes, but it’s the edgy comment that sticks, and I imagine a lot of frustrated American Sniper fans gnashed their teeth on that one.
In fact, at this awards show it was the documentary short Oscar winner, producer Dana Perry (who accepted the award for Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 with director Ellen Goosenberg Kent) who managed to best break through the tinsel of the bloviated proceedings by dedicating her win to her son, who committed suicide when he was 15 (the subject of her earlier documentary, Boy Interrupted). “We should talk about suicide out loud,” Perry said.
Dressed in a deliriously odd dress with big, black, poofy balls, Perry managed to arrest the camera’s attention. Not everyone can do that. Curiously, the Oscar short category seems to provide more genuine moments than the feature category — remember when Roger Ross Williams got cut off by his producer?
Maybe Poitras didn’t nail it on stage. But she sure did as a filmmaker.