A star-studded array of talents attended the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 21, held beneath an elaborate tent constructed at Santa Monica Beach. The ceremony and honors “champion the cause of independent film and support a community of artists who embody diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision” at home and broad, according to Film Independent’s mission statement. This year’s Spirit Awards were also a good predictor for the Oscars, bestowed the following day.
“It’s so wonderful to be nominated. It means you’ve been validated,” gushed Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced and co-starred as voter registration activist Annie Lee Cooper in Selma. Although it received only two Oscar nominations, the Civil Rights drama was nominated in five Spirit Award categories, including for Best Feature; Ava DuVernay for Best Director; Best Cinematography; Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King for Best Supporting Female; and David Oyelowo, who portrays Dr. King and walked the beachside red carpet near Oprah, for Best Male Lead.
Along these lines, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose Ida - about a novitiate nun who turns out to be Jewish and uncovers secrets about Nazism and Stalinism in Poland - won for Best International Film, pointed out in the press room, “This recognition for an independently made black and white film with unknown actors - little miracles happen. They keep us going and encourage others to take risks. This film was a huge risk - it made no commercial sense, whatsoever. And politically, too… So these awards are great protection and encouragement for others.” On Feb. 22 Ida went on to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, too
Gary Michael Walters, who executive produced Whiplash and Nightcrawler - which scored three Spirit noms (including for Jake Gyllenhaal as Best Male Lead) and won for Best First Feature and Best Screenplay, but received only one Oscar nomination - asserted that in comparison with most other show biz prizes “the Spirit Awards are more about filmmaking than celebrity,” honoring “edgier films” that are independently made, as opposed to more commercial big budget productions by Hollywood studios. For example, the Iceland-shot Land Ho! won the John Cassavetes for best feature made for under $500,000.
Echoing this sentiment, Patricia Arquette, Best Supporting Female for Boyhood, said in the press room: “I just knew enough about the business, it’s so hard to get financing for a small movie… The likelihood… was slim to none. So that was what blew my mind… I knew that nobody had ever done a scripted film before [shot over a 12 year period]. At this moment in film, it’s so rare… [Boyhood] is about the experience of normal human beings; these are not often people we make movies about… It was so exciting for me as an artist to be part of it… I turned down a lot of big movies for many years... that I didn’t love as a movie… And sometimes it was very difficult, being a single mom at 20. Instead, I was doing independent films, and this is the Independent Film award,” said Arquette, who also won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
Best First Screenplay winner Justin Simien was asked by this journalist, “what’s the state of race relations since making Dear White People?” “Incrementally better, but not terribly different,” the writer/director of the campus racial satire replied in the press room, laughing. “We still got a long way to go. My movie, Selma and other movies like it, trying to push these new ideas and stories and ways of seeing ourselves in the culture, I think it helps.”
This reporter asked Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski “what’s the difference between Poland’s film industry today and under Communism?” “The paradox of Communism is that it made the film industry flourish,” answered the Best International Film winner. “First of all, budgets were available for non-commercial films. Secondly, there was a tension in the air, something to talk about, a lot at stake. It encouraged filmmakers… the level of filmmaking was very high. Also, people knew audiences are listening, because the media, press, were full of lies and jargon. A good film would be devoured by people.
“Nowadays, you have to vie for attention. Then, if [Andrzej] Wajda, [Krzysztof ] Zanussi, [Krzysztof] Kieślowski made a film, documentary, feature, whatever, there was a huge audience waiting for it. The more forbidden they were the more important they became. It was a strange paradox. State funding was also part of the success. The last 25 years of democracy… one has to vie for audiences, look for the lowest common denominator, ape the West. It wasn’t clear that audiences were interested in what filmmakers had to say. So that kind of connection between audiences and filmmakers has been lost, up to a point, just like everywhere else,” lamented Pawlikowski.
Best Screenplay winner Dan Gilroy, whose Nightcrawler also won the Best First Feature Spirit Award, is about a “maladjusted” freelance local news videographer for whom “capitalism has become his religion. It’s a tough religion to follow…” Asked by The Progressive “what Nightcrawler said about the American news media and capitalism?” Gilroy proclaimed: “It’s an indictment of both ultimately. I don’t know of a better system than capitalism, but we’re living in a time of hyper-capitalism, in which… the strong are exploiting the weak… That’s where we are at the moment, it’ a dangerous time to be. In terms of journalism it’s an indictment to some degree of journalism, certainly… We’re all attracted to some degree to graphic, lurid images and they’re very aware of that, it’s a very effective formula to sell commercials… Local news is like watching Kabuki theater… Lou Bloom [Gyllenhaal’s psychopathic character] is going to be running a major multinational corporation in 10 years…”
Damien Chazelle, writer/director of Whiplash - the music school drama which snagged noms for Best Feature and Best director and won the Spirit Awards for Best Editing and J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Male - said American “education has its ups and downs. Our movie is about college level education, and it’s a real problem. A whole generation is being deprived of educational opportunities because of student debt. Our film says something about today’s youth.”
An ebullient Simmons stated in the press room: “There are unfortunate inconsistencies. There are school systems that are suffering greatly and funding is a problem, but not the only problem. There are certainly many, many, many institutions that continue to do a brilliant job… Having a musical background was huge,” in helping Simmons to portray Whiplash’s abusive, intense jazz teacher. Simmons proceeded to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, with Whiplash also winning editing and sound mixing Academy Awards.
Julianne Moore - who previously earned a Golden Globe for her depiction of Sarah Palin in the 2012 HBO movie Game Change and won Best Female Lead Spirit Award for Still Alice - said, “The Alzheimer’s community was so incredibly helpful and generous with its time and information. It was pretty extensive research… I learned a lot. The people living with this disease are amazing, amazing. It’s a long process. So I was glad to make a movie about living with something, not about dying… [Making Still Alice] didn’t make me sad; it made me appreciative, grateful for all that I have. This is a movie really not about loss but about love and life and what we value.” Moore also struck Oscar gold in the Best Actress category.
Richard Linklater won the Best Director Spirit Award for Boyhood, while Michael Keaton snagged the Best Male Lead trophy for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which also won for Best Feature. Keaton appeared onstage with co-actors Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis and co-writer director Alejandro Iñárritu in the press room. (For a complete list of winners see here.) The film about the struggle to stay true to one’s own self and pursuing artistic integrity also won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
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After snagging the Best Documentary Spirit Award Citizenfour director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald got what may be the biggest applause in the press room for the film about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. This reporter asked: “What is the state of surveillance today?” “I mean, I mean, it’s dire,” insisted Poitras. “Not only is their mass, indiscriminate surveillance, it’s happening on a global level. Also, our government’s not telling us what’s happening. It’s a dire situation. There is some good news: We do see tech companies doing more encryption. We see individuals taking things into their own hands - everybody can use encryption and we don’t need to wait for our governments to change policy.”
This journalist asked Greenwald, “Is it worse now or better than before the film?” “It’s a lot better - just the knowledge people have of the extent to which their privacy is being compromised has revolutionized the way people protect their communications,” replied the former Guardian columnist who, along with Poitras, now reports for The Intercept. “Governments around the world are genuinely indignant and taking serious steps to protect the privacy of their citizens’ communications. Always, having an informed debate, rather than letting these things work in the darkness is inherently better. And on top of that there are really intangible changes that make it hard to spy on people… If you go public and shine a light on what they’re doing that actually can be meaningful.”
Asked what the various accolades - which at that point included a George Polk Award, Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize, Pulitzer, Progie and an Academy Award nomination - for the Snowden reporting meant for Citizenfour the poised Poitras said: “We prepared for lots of bad case scenarios; we didn’t spend lots of time thinking about good case scenarios… It’s incredible; there were some times when Glenn and I were debating whether we should go back to the U.S.” Poitras resides in Berlin, Greenwald in Brazil.
Greenwald added: “It’s great because there’s a huge debate about what Edward Snowden did and the virtues of defying the government in order to bring transparency. This is a really good commentary on the nobility of doing that, regardless of what you think of the… debate… [Snowden’s] life has become a lot more normalized. He speaks freely at events, he writes columns, he gives interviews, he’s become a really important voice in the events he helped galvanize. The recognition that this film has gotten - virtually uniformly positive - is a really positive commentary on what he did. I think it will further his normalization and the realization that he’s not a criminal, not a traitor, but he’s somebody who believes in democracy and did what we all should do when we’re confronted by things so plainly unjust.”
Citizenfour also triumphed in the Best Documentary Oscar category, trumping the despicable rightwing propaganda mockumentary Last Days in Vietnam. After Poitras and Greenwald’s acceptance speeches the Academy’s live telecast’s host Neil Patrick Harris quipped: “Edward Snowden could not be here, for some treason.” The Academy also rejected another pro-war agitprop movie, American Sniper, which was nominated in a total of six categories, but only won a minor technical Oscar.
This year, the Academy, with its overwhelmingly Caucasian, male membership, had been criticized for the lack of diversity among the nominees, especially in the acting categories. Harris acknowledged this by opening the show with the joke, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest - I mean brightest.” The Academy seemed to go out of its way to address these concerns with its choice of presenters, such as Eddie Murphy, and even by focusing on audience members of color, such as actress Octavia Spencer, who’d won a Best Supporting Actress statuette for 2011’s The Help.
A number of presenters and awardees made socially conscious speeches, including Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of the Motion Picture Academy, who declared cinema “has a responsibility to protect freedom of expression.”
During her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech Boyhood co-star Patricia Arquette made a statement for womanhood: “It’s time for us to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women.”
In his Best Original Song acceptance speech for “Glory”, referencing the Edmund Pettus Bridge - site of extreme police brutality depicted in Selma - Common stated: “The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.
Co-writer John Legend added: “Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised now in this country today. Right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
Accepting the Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Imitation Game, about computer pioneer Alan Turing, who was persecuted because of his sexual preference, despite the fact that he helped win WWII by breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code, Graham Moore movingly said: “I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”
Closing the 3.5 hour-plus live broadcast, when Birdman won for Best Picture Iñárritu declared: “I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve, and the ... generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated ... as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
Ed Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).