Most of the 2019 Oscar-nominated films have screened at FilmScene in the past year, including four of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature. The filmmakers behind two of these acclaimed and ambitious docs joined FilmScene audiences months before the Academy Awards lauded their achievements.
Bing Liu, director of Minding the Gap, and RaMell Ross, director of Hale County This Morning, This Evening, both participated in FilmScene’s Vino Vérité series in 2018, co-presented by Little Village and Bread Garden Market.
Vino Vérité features films in the cinema vérité genre — documentaries that utilize observational, often innovative filmmaking techniques to capture real stories that touch on larger truths. The series title is also a play on the phrase “in vino veritas” (“in wine there is truth”), as a glass of wine from Bread Garden is included in every ticket purchase. Screenings are followed by discussions with the filmmaker(s) and/or the film’s subject(s). FilmScene has hosted Vino Vérité for three years (highlights from the series are compiled in the video above by Tommy Haines).
Both Liu and Ross’s films use a candid but stylish documentary approach to showcase scenes from the lives of average Americans dealing with issues of race, financial instability, child rearing, relationships and violence.
Minding the Gap is a deeply personal film for Liu, who’s presence behind the camera — and sometimes in front of it — is always felt. Filmed over 12 years, the documentary charts the coming-of-age of Liu and his two friends and fellow skateboarding enthusiasts Keire and Zack, growing up in Rockford, Illinois. Liu’s debut film (a 2018 favorite of Barack Obama) has no narration or script of any sort, but as the camera glides down virtually empty streets behind its central skaters, stopping to grab impromptu interviews with the boys or their mothers or girlfriends, a natural narrative emerges, one illustrating the dangers of toxic masculinity and the pain of regret.
“If you follow someone’s life long enough and just let their life lead the story, basically every single social issue will come out organically. You don’t have to force it out, squeeze it out,” Liu said during his FilmScene talk on May 6.
Hale County is an unhurried, immersive and unfiltered slice-of-life look at a predominately black community in modern-day Alabama, one that challenges documentary, and certainly Oscar-worthy documentary, conventions. The footage includes a pastor drawing crosses with holy water onto parishioners’ foreheads; a young basketball player, longing for a scholarship, shooting three-pointers alone in a gym, mumbling to himself to shoot harder while sweat drips down his back; a toddler in a Lego Movie T-shirt running back and forth through his living room for nearly five minutes before embracing the camera; interspersed with sometimes humorous, sometimes haunting B-roll of more kids, cows, deer, police stops, fast food and the moon, as well as on-screen text offering occasional contextual information and poetic musings such as “Where does time reside?”
“The greatest thing to me that a film can do is translate, one, an experience, but offer the experience of someone else, because that’s where truth is,” Ross explained in Iowa City on Aug. 12. “Truth is a synthesis of a million subjectivities. There’s nothing objective.”
Other nominees in the 2019 Best Documentary Feature category include Free Solo, RBG and Of Fathers and Sons. The 91st Academy Awards ceremony will broadcast on ABC Sunday, Feb. 24 starting at 7 p.m. FilmScene will screen the awards for their annual Blue Carpet Bash.