Quick quiz: Who were the most indelible film characters from 2013? Don’t think about it too long. That’s the whole idea behind being indelible. The character stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled. 2013 was a good year for film, and there were lots of good characters. In order to save time, I will stipulate that any of the twenty Oscar-nominated actors portrayed memorable characters (though I don’t really believe that.) In addition, I think of Keller Dover (Prisoners) and Oscar Grant (Fruitvale Station), Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt) and Adele (Blue is the Warmest Color), John (Blue Caprice) and Marie (The Past – all right, who am I kidding, everyone in The Past. I’m a sucker for Farhadi.) I don’t doubt you can think of many others.
But for me, there’s no question who the most compelling on-screen character was in 2013. It was Anwar Congo, proud and effective Indonesian government worker in the mid-1960s. The fact that his “work” was to torture and execute communists and ethnic Chinese provides the basic dramatic conflict for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Congo recounts what most of us would consider atrocities with a combination of banality and pride, like a philatelist showing off his stamp collection. He seems so brainwashed by western culture, especially western film, that he cannot distinguish on-screen blood from the real thing. And yet, Anwar Congo has seen the real thing up close in a way that almost no one else has. By the end of the film, the ghosts begin to speak to him and the seemingly hard shell exterior begins to crack. It is riveting cinema, and he is a character I won’t soon forget.
In second place on my indelible character list is Magdy Ashour – family man, Muslim Brotherhood member, Egyptian revolutionary – from Jehane Noujaim’s The Square. To a Westerner, Ashour may be the most important character captured on film in a very long time. He is a passionate member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is also independent enough to question their edicts when he feels they have gone too far. He is willing to fight for what he believes in. He is also willing to accept that those who disagree with him may have legitimate points of view. And he struggles with the moral imperative to protest for change while recognising the practical damage such protests may create for him and his family. In other words, Magdy Ashour is a complex, realistic human being, smart and kind-hearted – a devout Muslim character that is almost never represented in Western cinema.
The fact that both of these characters come from documentaries is not terribly surprising. In fact, somewhere in my top 10 would also be Kai Greene, roughly taking on the Lou Ferrigno role in Vlad Yulin’s documentary Generation Iron. Documentary film, long thought of as the Brussels sprouts of the film world, has undergone a remarkable resurgence in the past twenty-five years. Whether you love him or hate him, Michael Moore has been the primary reason for this. Beginning with Roger & Me (1989), Moore has shown you can make documentaries that are entertaining, controversial, and, most importantly, profitable. You may prefer your Kopples and Wisemans and Maysles. But Moore moved the industry so that now financing a documentary, and then getting it distributed, is not quite the Herculean task it once was. Since this coincided with the proliferation of media outlets (home video, cable, online…), we now have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documentary choices.
By 2013, this has led to an interesting, and potentially troubling, phenomenon, which was on display at this year’s Oscars. To understand what is happening, we have to go back twenty years. That was when Steve James’ magnificent documentary Hoop Dreams was denied an Oscar nomination despite overwhelming critical and popular support. It turns out that the relatively cloistered group of documentary voters was manipulating the voting process to help their favourites. The mindset was that a movie like Hoop Dreams (1994), with its popular, accessible subject and lots of media attention, didn’t need the publicity boost that an Oscar would provide. Voters viewed their job as promoting movies that most people would otherwise never hear of, as opposed to honouring the highest achievement. The movie that won the Oscar that year, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, is a good movie. In my opinion, it is nowhere near as good as Hoop Dreams.
The revamped system has tended to place more popular movies in a more favourable position. And so, in the past ten years, we have seen films like Bowling for Columbine (2002), March of the Penguins (2005), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Man on Wire (2008), Searching for Sugar Man (2012), and this year’s 20 Feet from Stardom take the prize. I do not for one minute mean to suggest that any of these films were not worthy of recognition, nor do I want to re-fight old battles when my opinions may have differed with those of the Academy voters. 20 Feet from Stardom is an extremely well-made and entertaining movie. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, among others, are all wonderful characters. But there is no way I will remember them the way I will remember Anwar Congo and Magdy Ashour. I was not nearly as emotionally involved in their stories as I was in those of Congo and Ashour. I strongly suspect I will not remember 20 Feet from Stardom over time as vividly as I will remember The Act of Killing or The Square, much in the same way that 24 years later I can remember Oscar also-ran Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House far more than I can recall the 1991 winner In the Shadow of the Stars – essentially 20 Feet from Stardom set in the world of opera.
This isn’t really about the Oscars. After all, there are many people who couldn’t care less about what movie wins an award. I think the Oscars merely reflect this paradox. As more and more documentaries make it to the screen, it becomes harder for any one documentary to stand out. And as producers begin to see some documentaries as money-makers, they naturally ask why all documentaries can’t be money-makers. Thus, the big-name movies, movies with Al Gore or adorable penguins, or Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, seem to more easily dominate the field, sucking up all the oxygen that the plethora of smaller films are fighting for. And that’s unfortunate. Because as much as I enjoy Bruce and Mick, I think all of us, not just documentary fans, could benefit from seeing Magdy Ashour and Anwar Congo.