Will I never learn?

My personal and usually undeclared rules for filmmaking are apparently made to be broken. I am a member of the Academy’s documentary-feature branch (meaning the Oscar academy)  and this year the film jurist in me was jarred by one special film in a remarkably strong field of documentaries short-listed for the Academy Award. The film is called Enemies of the People. I had never heard of it. The assignment was to winnow 15 films down to 5. 

The amazing news is that the 2010 short-listed crop was by far the most impressive I had ever seen.  Of the 15 films sent to me (in an Academy carton laced with one Dove Bar, a sleeve of popcorn and a packet of JuJyfruits) only two were ……….not good. In addition to the remaining films’ generally excellent quality, each offering some storytelling lesson in its own right, Enemies of the People made me realize that my wildly subjective, well-honed criteria for great work were either grandiose or obsolete. The film is about a Cambodian journalist’s solitary quest for his family’s killers and for some grasp of his country’s lunge into chaos, the substrate of The Killing Fields.

Enemies of the People gets off to a shaky start, literally. Several of its initially discouraging hallmarks seemed to be: filmmaker/reporter as film’s organizing principal and principle; heavy narration of show-and-tell variety; indifferent camerawork and sound; most dangerously, possibly limited, chronological filmmaking that could under-serve the immensity of the story it was trying to tell. 

Please understand that Enemies happened to be the last of the fifteen films I screened. I already had at least five films I thought deserving of nomination, an exceptional year by any measure, and I was about to meet my voting deadline. Then along came this dark horse.

Long before the film was finished, I realized that the filmmakers, including reporter/director Thet Sambath, had not only met the challenge of  the reporter’s enormous quest through artful, emotional storytelling, but they had also broadened a world-audience’s grasp of the epic horrors of the Khmer Rouge from the highest source to the most menial. Pol Pot’s co-architect, Nuon Chea, ‘Brother Number Two’ – won and filmed over a period of five years by Mr. Sambath –   declares the founding philosophy; and two peasant-farmers, nearly anonymous throat-slitters of The Killing Fields, mime their gruesome craft. The filmmaker/reporter was the critical, central character. His patience and kindness contradicted the barbarities he was uncovering  and his narration served the film’s larger purpose. It endorsed the emotional flow.

The film is a completely amazing accomplishment. It is also an historic document. It made me remember again that my own thresholds of taste and ‘style’ of filmmaking is merely a work in progress.

I voted easily for Enemies of the People as my first choice for the Academy Award.

The film was not nominated.

– DeWitt Sage is an award- winning documentary filmmaker and a screenwriter who has produced, written and directed films on a remarkable range of subjects since 1968.