Seeking Direction: The 2014 DGA Nominees

The Directors Guild of America has announced its nominees for their 2014 Awards, and as usual, there are insights and snubs o' plenty.

If it's January, it's Award Season and with the various critics groups and cinema organizations announcing their Best-ofs, it's also the time when various Guilds give it up for their membership. The Producers have already weighed in, as have the writers, and now it's time for the Director's to dole out their annual accolades. As a predictor of Oscar glory, winning the DGA has been fairly accurate (it's rare that its winner doesn't go on to take home the Academy gold), but the group of filmmakers and friends has been known to go way off base at times in favor of efforts that few would really consider quintessential trophy fodder.

Well, that didn't happen this year, but there are a couple of surprises to be culled from the organization's 7 January announcement. For those keeping score, the DGA narrowed the 2013 field down to the following five faces behind the lens:

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)

Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Of this group, America's auteur, Martin Scorsese, has the most previous nods -- nine to be exact. He earned his first nomination back in 1977 for Taxi Driver and was also recognized for Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed (which he won) and Hugo. He also has a TV nomination and win for Boardwalk Empire.

David O. Russell is a far distant second, having picked up his first DGA mention for The Fighter. Of the rest -- Steve McQueen, Paul Greengrass, and Alfonso Cuaron -- all are first timers. Pundits have immediately pushed the 12 Years a Slave guide to the top of the list, setting up a historic moment for the Guild. Only one African American director has previously been nominated for the prestigious award -- Lee Daniel's for Precious -- and McQueen seems poised to be the organization's first winner of color.

Of course, the snubs are equally intriguing. With Oscar going to 10 (or less) Best Picture nominations in the last few years, there are some obvious MIA mentions for movies everyone assumes will be vying for AMPAS acknowledgement. Two in particular come to mind -- Spike Jonze's beloved Her and the Coen Brothers latest masterwork, Inside Llewyn Davis. Both films have won numerous critics group's awards and both were seen as having a real shot at Oscar glory. Without DGA acknowledgement, however, that could be tough (not impossible, however. Ben Affleck won for Argo last year and yet didn't even get an Academy nomination. It did win Best Picture, though). Also absent were long shots like Alexander Payne (for Nebraska), Abdellatif Kechiche (for Blue is the Warmest Color) and Woody Allen (for Blue Jasmine).

Of the five up for final consideration, only one seems oddly out of place. It makes sense that Greengrass is a first time nominee since his films are usually considered more "commercial" than those featured. The closest he came to earning any real end of the year appreciation is when his brilliant United 93 hit theaters in 2006. That year, the DGA went with Scorsese, finally. But when looking at his output, what's the primary thing everyone talks about? The shaky cam -- Greengrass's outright love of using jittery handheld set-ups for everything he films. It's annoying. It's unsettling. Some even complain it causes nausea. In the case of Captain Phillips, it really adds very little to the story except the mandated "you are in the middle of the action" POV. It's a gimmick and one that this otherwise talented artist has relied on for a bit too long.

Everyone else has a decent case for being included. Russell's revisionist look at ABSCAM is all '70s splash, including bad hair, even worse fashion choices, and several sensational performances. Juggling the many divergent narrative elements in American Hustle deserves acknowledgement though there is a vocal contingent that believes this film is as big a con as the hucksters at the center. Similarly, the web has been going wild with "Open Letters" condemning/complimenting Scorsese over his vision of Wall Street excess, driving a potential wedge between voters. Still, for those who were shocked by the filmmaker's desire to highlight the hedonistic excesses of Jordan Belfort and his penny stock cronies, here's a question: where was your sense of moral outrage when everyone was calling Goodfellas a modern classic?

That just leaves Cuaron and McQueen and, frankly, in our opinion, this is the real race. 12 Years a Slave is the film about race and racism in the United States that only a British filmmaker could make, and his skin color could play a big part in the final decision (though it shouldn't considering how amazing the movie is by itself). The DGA has been known to play social politics before (Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in a year which saw Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Jason Reitman, and Lee Daniels nominated for arguably better films) and giving McQueen the award would do two things: act as an indirect mea culpa for the years the DGA did NOTHING for artists of color and set-up Slave as the apology the Academy has been looking for ever since that organization's blatant racism was called out. Again, the movie is an unqualified masterpiece, which leaves all the other sniping as excess over-analysis.

As for Cuaron, there's a distinct chance as well. Gravity is an amazing technical achievement, a "how did they do that?" experience that's had fans and filmmakers wondering, well, just how he DID do it. Some might feel it is all bells and whistles, but there are personal moments in the movie where stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock prove that Cuaron is capable of eliciting magic out of human beings as well. While Gravity is nowhere near the monumental achievement that Children of Men was/is (one imagines he still would have lost to Scorsese -- it was 2006 after all), it does mark a major moment in mainstream moviemaking, a challenge to perceptions of both what audiences will accept and what technicians can create given the freedom and funds to do so.

Naturally, none of this will matter once the parties have been thrown and the press agents have spun the suspense out of the seemingly inevitable results. As they do every year, these guild-ed goings on only further push the annual expression of self-aggrandizement further and further away from the audience who makes such prestige pictures possible in the first place. While most of their choices are fine, the DGA still has a hard time finding the proper direction for its appreciation.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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