I watched two of the Oscar-nominated documentaries. They didn’t disappoint.
How Icarus accidentally became one of the most important documentaries of last year
“This is a wake-up call, yes, about Russia, but more than that, about the importance of telling the truth,” said Bryan Fogel on Sunday night, after his film Icarus won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. With this quote, Fogel identified what made his documentary such a relevant piece of Trump-era pop culture.
Icarus follows Fogel as he sets out to show how easy it is for cyclists to get away with using performance-enhancing steroids. For help, he reaches out to expert Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s anti-doping program, but soon after, the story takes a twist. Feeling pressure from an investigation into his agency, Rodchenkov decides to come clean about his involvement in a decades-long scandal in which the Russian government was helping their athletes cheat and cover it up.
Thanks to Rodchenkov’s willingness to explain the system for cheating and how high up in the government it reached, Icarus offers an illuminating glimpse into the Russian regime. While the film avoids explicitly talking about current US-Russian relations or the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, it exposes the great lengths the country was willing to go to cover up something as comparatively trivial as cheating in the Olympics. The scale of their operation was impressive, and the fact they got away with it for so long is scary.
But for all the political intrigue surrounding this film, it also works on a more personal level. It is at its core about Rodchenkov and what it means to tell the truth in a country that routinely silences – through death or intimidation – dissenting voices.
Most of the film follows Rodchenkov’s attempts to tell his story while keeping himself and his family safe. By telling the truth, Rodchenkov puts his life at risk, and the high stakes become clear as the documentary progresses. In a particularly tense scene, Fogel waits at the airport, unsure if Rodchenkov will make it through to him alive.
As much as Russia is in the news these days, Americans don’t often get to hear stories from people on the ground. Rodchenkov is not exactly an average Russian citizen, but it is fascinating to witness his downfall from high-level government official to whistleblower afraid for his life.
Like all great documentaries, Icarus is about more than just the specific story it tells. Sitting just below the surface of the film are questions about truth in our own democracy. By cleverly using Rodchenkov’s favorite book, 1984, as a framing device, Fogel relates this scandal to government corruption and manipulation in general.
In an era marked by “fake news” and “alternative facts”, Icarus is a great example of the great risk and incalculable value of simply telling the truth.
Faces Places captures life in rural France in a unique way
There was a moment in the second half of the Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places when I was struck by what the film was accomplishing. French filmmaker Agnès Varda was looking at photographs of an old friend that she had taken decades earlier, and said, “I may remember my pictures of him better than I remember him.”
Faces Places is a time capsule, a collection of moments featuring two artists from different generations who use their art as a means of forging connections with people near them.
The movie captures the adventures of the two leads, the 89-year-old Varda and a Banksy-style photographer known only as JR, as they travel around France posting massive black-and-white images of the people they come across onto buildings, trains, and anything else they can find.
The murals are beautiful, and the looks on the people’s faces as they see larger-than-life versions of themselves make for moving moments, but the film’s main draw is the relationship between Varda and JR, who have great chemistry together and become friends over the course of the documentary.
Faces Places is subtle and sometimes frustrating, but the whole impressed me much more than its constituent parts. There is no narrative, per se, and unlike the other Oscar-nominated documentaries, its subject matter feels pretty trivial. But the film’s unassuming nature is why it succeeds. Faces Places never wants to make any significant social commentary or uncover any scandals. It is simply a testament to the power of art and its role in documenting lived reality.
header image: netflix / everett collection