Ezra Edelman's Simpson documentary went in an overwhelming favorite; 'Helmets' cinematographer prevented from attending ceremony
At the Academy Awards Sunday night there may have been mass confusion over the announcement of the Best Picture winner, but when it came to Best Documentary Feature the evening went according to form.
As expected, Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America won the Oscar, capping an awards season in which the 464-minute-long film won virtually every honor available. Oscar statuettes went to Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow for an opus that has been praised for exploring the broad dimensions of O.J. Simpson's life, race in America, the LAPD's troubled relationship with LA's black residents and how these currents converged in the famed athlete's double murder trial.
History is the present. It's past, but it's present.
In the press room backstage Edelman was asked about revisiting Simpson's murder trial more than two decades after the fact.
"It was very clear that the story that was covered and told 20-some-odd years ago, we were missing something," he said. "We were missing the context to have us understand how we got to that moment, how we ended up where we did after that trial. There was room for more of this story to be told."
Edelman expanded on why he thinks the country is still gripped by the "trial of the century," which saw Simpson acquitted on charges of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
"It's an American story about these fundamental American themes, race, celebrity, class, gender, domestic abuse, the criminal justice system, the media. It's sports, sex, murder. It has everything," he said. "And so I think that's why it's always going to be something that fascinates us, and I think there is a lack of resolution, considering what happened with the trial and when many people ‑‑ the majority of people saw one thing, how it (the verdict) ended up was something else, and so I think there is always going to be a sense of intrigue surrounding that story."
Best documentary short subject went to The White Helmets, in what might be considered a mild surprise. Some had predicted victory for Joe's Violin.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara won Oscars for the film, after being nominated two years ago in the documentary feature category for Virunga.
"This is clearly an incredible honor, but right from the start this was always about shining a very bright light on the heroes in the heart of our film, the White Helmets, Syrian rescue workers," von Einsiedel said in the press room. "And just to be nominated was incredible, but now that we've won this, we're really hoping that that will continue to magnify their voices (first responders in Syria)."
Khaled Khateeb, a 21-year-old Syrian cinematographer who worked on The White Helmets, was initially granted a visa to attend the Academy Awards, but when he tried to board a flight to Los Angeles in Turkey he was turned away. The Associated Press said it viewed "internal Trump administration correspondence" which indicated U.S. officials had found "derogatory information" about Khateeb, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to bar him entry.
According to the AP report, "Derogatory information is a broad category that can include anything from terror connections to passport irregularities. Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Gillian Christensen, said, 'A valid travel document is required for travel to the United States.'"
We don't believe in anything but building borders between people and building compassion.
Backstage, Natasegara called the evening "bittersweet" because Khateeb could not attend. She said she and von Einsiedel spoke with the cinematographer by phone after their victory was announced.
"He's thrilled because he, like us, just wants the world to know about the White Helmets," Natasegara said.
The filmmakers were asked for their thoughts on the Trump administration's proposed travel ban which would prevent Syrians from entering the United States. The original order has been blocked by federal courts, but the administration is said to be working on a revised plan.
"We don't believe in anything but building borders between people and building compassion," Natasegara replied. "That's what our films do, that's what we speak to. So of course we would never support something like that ban. And the White Helmets show that even a person with no agency can dig with their hands to save one life, and that means everything to them. We support those kind of values."
Khateeb is a "white helmet" himself, a member of the Syria Civil Defense whose members risk their lives to rescue the injured in Syria's six-year-old civil war. The leader of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, was granted a visa to travel to the U.S. for the Oscars, but von Einsiedel said he elected to remain in Syria.
"He couldn't come in the end because the last couple of days in Syria, the violence has really escalated, and he does lifesaving work, and he decided in the end his time was better placed to do that," von Einsiedel said backstage.
On stage, von Einsiedel read a statement from Saleh: "We’re so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse from the Koran: 'to save one life is to save all of humanity.' We have saved more than 82,000 civilian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life, to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.