10-part The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls, competed in tough documentary series category
The fifth and final night of the 2020 Creative Arts Emmys came to a close Saturday evening with two more documentary awards presented -- for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series and Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
ESPN's The Last Dance was something of a surprise winner for series, claiming victory over the favored Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Director Jason Hehir accepted the award, thanking his team and Michael Jordan, the NBA Hall of Famer whose decision to allow access to behind the scenes material of his final championship season with the Chicago Bulls made the series possible.
"My goal with any documentary is always to de-iconize the subject and to demystify the subject and make them into relatable human beings," Hehir told Nonfictionfilm.com heading into the Emmys. "And there may not be a more mystified or a deified figure, iconized figure than Michael Jordan, so that was always our goal and, hopefully, that's what resonated."
The Last Dance became a mega-hit for ESPN, moved up from a planned June debut to April after the network realized fans deprived of live sports in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown were likely to welcome a series about one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time. The 10-part series averaged six million viewers a night on ESPN. It had an encore run on ABC and has since been airing on Netflix, which co-produced the series.
"I'm a sports fan myself, and I know that I was starved for content. There was a dearth of content out there, not just in games, but any new content in the sports universe," Hehir told me. "We were actually still working on the project up until the Thursday before the finale. So, it's just a bizarre time in the universe for this to take hold. It feels like a dream now."
The Cave, the searing documentary about a woman running a subterranean hospital in a besieged area of Syria, won the award for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. Copenhagen-based producers Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjær shared the prize. Feras Fayyad directed the film, earning an Oscar nomination earlier this year.
"We're extremely honored to win this award and very grateful and happy," Dyekjær said in the Emmy press room after the award was announced. "We also see that the competitors that we had this year are incredible competitors; a lot of the other films are outstandingly produced as well."
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, Chasing the Moon, and One Child Nation were the other films nominated in the Exceptional Merit category, the only juried award in the Emmy nonfiction field.
I asked the producers if they found it frustrating that the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially knocked Syria completely out of the news in the U.S.
"Of course it's frustrating for us that people don't deal with Syria so much anymore," Dyekjær replied. "That means that we are even more happy to receive this award because this award also brings attention to the Syrian situation and it is an award that we want to give out to everybody fighting against dictators and against dictators killing their own people."
Dyekjær continued, "[COVID-19] is also a huge danger in Syria right now. So not only is Syria trying to find its feet again in the war conflict that's actually going on still in some areas but they're also fighting against COVID-19 and against hunger. It's a devastating situation... We just hope that people will continue to watch stories coming out of Syria... where now the war night not be happening as increasingly big as it was when we shot The Cave, but still it's a country that is torn and is in conflict and is definitely not in a good situation and not with COVID-19 either. We just hope people will stay and watch and be part of the political discussion which is happening internationally."
Bowing to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, the Creative Arts Emmys were held as a virtual ceremony over five nights. Earlier in the week, Todd Douglas Miller's documentary Apollo 11 won three trophies -- for picture editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
American Factory, winner of the Academy Award in February, won directing honors for Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. The Apollo, Roger Ross Williams' documentary about the legendary Harlem performing arts theater, won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath won the Emmy for Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.