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Doc Corner: Netflix's Big Oscar Push

A flurry of documentaries are having their premieres on Netflix and in their own way serve as glowing examples of the positives and the negatives of the streaming platform. Netflix made an impression very early in their life as original content providers; the Academy’s documentary branch has already warmed to their productions and acquisitions. They deserved the statue for The Square in 2012 (losing to music doc 20 Feet from Stardom), and proved their keen eye (and deep pockets) were no fluke with subsequent nominations for Virunga (losing to Citizenfour), What Happened Miss Simone?, and Winter on Fire (both losing to music doc Amy) 

This year it’s entirely feasible to imagine an Oscar line-up with five Netflix titles. I can't imagine the doc branch ever letting that happen, but they have the product and it’s looking entirely possible they could finally win in a memorable and game-changing first. But what about the films themselves: Into the Inferno, Amanda Knox, and Audrie & Daisie?


Into the Inferno is Werner Herzog’s latest excavation of the world’s most dangerous and wonderful corners (he is the only filmmaker to have made a movie on every continent). You may remember that I was disappointed in the German director’s last film, the frustrating Lo and Behold, but if that earlier exploration of the internet's origins and its potential futures was uncharacteristically flat, then his latest is a perfect tonic. Inferno is a remarkably entertaining and spectacularly gorgeous return to form.

If you have seen Herzog’s last (and as yet only) Oscar nominee, Encounters at the End of the World, then you will already be familiar with Into the Inferno’s predominant on-screen presence, a delightfully dandy Cambridge volcanologist named Clive Oppenheimer. The pair form quite a team, and Oppenheimer’s large role in front of a camera allows for the film to not feel so suffocated by Herzog’s typically robust narration.

In Herzog fashion, these natural wonders are used as a gateway to many other things from the propaganda machine of North Korea all the way back to, literally, the potential dawn of man with the exciting discovery of fossilized human bones millimetres under the surface in Ethiopia. Herzog and Oppenheimer venture around the world, including in a neat twist (for me, anyway) to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu and the volcano Mount Yasur that so memorably formed the molten heart of Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s fiery romance and Australian Oscar contender Tanna.

It’s just a shame then that apart from some film festivals that, let’s face it, not many people have the chance to get to, Into the Inferno will premiere on Netflix. There are images in this film that beg to be seen projected onto a big screen. Whether that’s the hypnotic shots of bubbling lava, the archival footage of Katia and Maurice Krafft, or the stunning nature that surrounds these towering beasts in regions as far and wide as Hawaii, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy and beyond. If Netflix are going to insist on acquiring films like this – doc or not – then it is going to be so disappointing to know audiences won’t have the opportunity to see them on anything but a small screen. This old IndieWire article includes a reference to the film being an IMAX 3D title and, well, that is something I’d walk over hot coals for.

Utilizing the format much more appropriately is Audrie & Daisy, a deeply upsetting documentary about teen bullying in the digital age. No film has made me feel happier for being as old as I am and blessedly avoiding having to be in school at a time of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, hashtags and cameras in everybody’s pocket. What makes Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s film such a perfect fit for Netflix, however, is that while audiences like you and I will get a lot out of its horrific glimpse into the new and terrifying ways kids have to terrorize other kids, it might also actually be seen by the very people it is about.

Harvey Weinstein made a big fracas several years ago when he complained about the R rating handed down to the documentary Bully claiming the target audience wouldn’t be able to see it. Well, just five years later and a new target audience wouldn’t know a world without Netflix. It's nice to imagine at least some sitting down and taking in its message, enhanced as it is by smart visual storytelling devices that use modern technology to its most attention-grabbing.

Audrie & Daisy is ultimately an extremely affecting film that does a better job of examining rape culture than Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground from last year. And while you can take issue with  the structure of the film, its problems are nothing compared the third Netflix documentary.

Amanda Knox is the highest profile of the fresh lot through subject matter rather than filmmaking skill. Ron Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s true crime doc raises more eyebrows from scepticism than shock or surprise. This is a film that revels in the tawdriness and the salaciousness of the story with none of thrills of even the most basic of television police procedural.

The directors settle for a rather straight forward telling of Knox’s story, which is clearly on her side to the detriment of the narrative. Much was made in the marketing of Amanda Knox about whether she did it or she didn’t, but the film asks no such questions. And even then, I – somebody with only minor knowledge of the case beforehand – could drive a truck through some of the implications that they present as stone cold proof of her innocence. And I don’t drive.

Nor does it use Knox’s incredible story as a catalyst for anything deeper. Unless you’re talking about deep thought monologues from Knox herself who spends far too much of the blessedly brief 90-minute runtime waxing philosophical. Talking heads are largely unnecessary beyond reporter former Daily Mail reporter Nick Pisa who, in the film’s best and most alarming passages, unconsciously uncovers the blatant disregard for journalistic integrity that he and everyone else worked under through her many trials. Facts? Much like this film, he doesn’t seem to need ‘em. I wouldn’t expect much though from someone who works for the Mail, but the makers of Amanda Knox should have known better and the end product is something that belongs as an episode of Crimes That Shocked the Nation and little more.

Release: Audrie & Daisy and Amanda Knox are on Netflix now, and Into the Inferno will be released on the 18th of October.

Oscar Chances: Inferno and Daisy are incredibly strong, but Amanda Knox will be sitting this one out. It's harder to decide which of the rest of the year’s Netflix batch will make it all the way - The 13th and The Ivory Game are also very strong, obviously – but if Netflix got Herzog out on the campaign trail showing his movie on a proper big screen then a narrative could form around him. The connections to Encounters at the End of the World can only help for Herzog. And Daisy could be ripe to capitalize on The Hunting Ground’s narrative last year (it made the long list) as well as the continued discussion of rape culture spurred on by another Oscar wannabe, Nate Parker.

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Reader Comments (6)

Amanda Knox is really kind of ... useless, isn't it? I recall watching a couple of news specials about this case when it was a major story in the US, and they were more edifying. I would have expected a documentary to focus more on the criminal procedure aspects of the case - the fact that she was afforded practically no due process in Italy - but a lot of that was just brushed over (it's outrageous that she was lied to about being HIV positive, and yet that's given maybe a minute of screen time - who told her that? Was it authorized? Is it typical to lie to criminal defendants about the fact that they have serious health conditions in Italy? etc.).

Christopher Campbell has a piece today asking why people like Amanda Knox even consent to interviews for documentaries like this, and I basically agree with it. She has been forgotten (though perhaps not in her hometown of Seattle), so all this documentary will do is reopen doubts about her innocence.

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Will be amazing to ser Herzog winning the Oscar.

But well all know that probably the Winner Will be Ava Duvernay.

Will be Good to.

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJon

Jon, Ava's film needs to be nominated first and the doc branch has never been much of a fan of people known for fiction filmmaking swinging into their field. The subject matter will help it, but remember when The Lego Movie wasn't nominated by the animators despite it obviously being a winner if it had. Hmmm.

Suzanne, right? I could read Wikipedia and get a better glimpse of the story. the HIV thing was bizarre. The boyfriend recanting his story is never gone into either. Useless is a perfect word for it.

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

RE: “Amanda Knox”: With all due respect to Glenn Dunks who usually nails his reviews, my sense is that he fails to evaluate the merits of the film its creators intended and have given us. Instead, he writes of its failure as the one he would have preferred them to make. These directors felt no obligation to prove innocence, but they do effectively show that the scant purported physical evidence against the students was useless. At trial 98% of the evidence against Knox was circumstantial, which is to say, hearsay.

A profound irony is that footage Amanda shot of Meredith Kercher -- depicting a lovely, happy young student in love with Perugia –appears here for the first time. Amanda filmed her roommate when they attended the Eurochocolate festival together, but police seized and suppressed the material because it was inconsistent with their theory that the girls hated each other.

For someone who has followed the case as I have, the only original material here is in the interviews. I was astonished that the filmmakers could have persuaded Prosecutor Mignini, Reporter Nick Pisa, Amanda Knox, and Raffaele Sollecito to sit and talk. I saw this film at a screening, and in the Q&A that followed McGinn said what they offered the participants was opportunity to present themselves as they wished to be perceived without having to answer hard questions. Both Prosecutor Mignini and reporter Nick Pisa give us self-portraits which we are invited to ponder for ourselves.

Truthfully, the short running time and focus on the interviews prevented a rehash of details widely available elsewhere. For those seeking a deeper understanding of this case and its context in Perugia, the directors recommended Nina Burleigh’s “The Fatal Gift of Beauty”. Another reviewer has described this film as “sedate” yet “surprisingly moving”; to this I would add that it is also quite original and utterly fascinating.

October 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMark Saha

Man oh man, I LOVED Into the Inferno. I was right there with you not much enjoying Lo and Behold, Glenn. Glad you seem to have liked this one as much as I did. And you're dead on about Netflix doing it no favors by releasing it direct to streaming. Really wish I could have caught this at a festival screening. Still, it's great.

November 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Excellent review!
It was surprising that a pro-Amanda Knox propaganda flick was even nominated but on the bright side it will expose more of her (and her followers) hypocrisies.

It’s refreshing to hear that the biased film for the twice convicted murderer is obvious to everyone. Note that her “waxing philosophical’ is always ‘me me me’ oriented similar to a psychopath.

July 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAgreed

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