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Oscars 2013: How short documentary directors heard the news

January 10, 2013|By Laura J. Nelson

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, it was 32 degrees in western Massachusetts, and documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade had no heat and no power in her house in the Berkshires.

'This is not the morning for this to happen,' Wade thought, as she lit candles. She switched her cellphone to vibrate and perched it on a windowsill, thinking she would get better reception that way. Just in case.

“I’ve had a film on the short list before that didn’t make the cut,” Wade said. “And so I know it can go either way. Whatever happens, happens.”  

When the windowsill vibrated, she knew.

The news came from her publicist: Wade had been nominated for an Academy Award for her short documentary, “Mondays at Racine.” Directed by Wade and co-produced with Robin Honan, the 39-minute film features a Long Island hair salon and its owners who open their doors every two weeks to women with cancer.

Wade was one of 10 people nominated for five films in the short documentary category. Other nominees include Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine for “Inocente;” Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider for “Kings Point;” Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern for “Open Heart,” and Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill for “Redemption.”  

Andrea Nix Fine was watching her second-grade son playing the xylophone at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., when her phone began to ring. She and her husband had received the Academy Award nomination for “Inocente,” the story of a teenage artist who is homeless and undocumented.

The nomination is the second for both the Fines. The first was for "War Dance," a 2007 documentary that followed Ugandan refugee children who compete in a national music and dance festival.

 “Children are the new face of homelessness,” Andrea Fine said. “What we like doing in our filmmaking is telling that story through people who are actually living it, as opposed to anything more sterilized.” 

On the West Coast, Kief Davidson slept fitfully Wednesday night at his home in Hancock Park. He dreamed that he hadn’t won, and woke up disappointed. He dreamed he had won, and woke up wistful. 

The director and producer of “Open Heart” had finally started drifting off again when his phone rang. It was his co-producer, Cori Shepherd Stern.

"She said, ‘I don’t know if I’m reading this right!’ But there we were,” Davidson said. “She sounded like she was in total shock.” The nomination was his first.

And in San Francisco, at 5:30 a.m., Sari Gilman g-chatted with friends on the East Coast who were already at work. She knew she was on the short list. She needed to stay distracted.

Gilman had worked for nearly a decade on “Kings Point,” which focuses on love and loneliness at a retirement complex in Florida, where her grandmother lived for 30 years. She had edited documentaries for 15 years, but "Kings Point" is her directorial debut.

“They were the ones who told me,” Gilman said. “I felt it in my body. My heart started to pound. It’s just very, very, very exciting.”

The best part of the nomination, the directors said, was that their characters would see the nomination and understand the impact their willingness to be filmed will have.

The directors said in an interview that their films all document someone's struggle to rise above his or her circumstance: cancer patients, the homeless, Sudanese children and the elderly.

"Redemption" also details the lives of the New York City residents who make a living by collecting cans and bottles.

One woman Wade got to know had lived with metastatic breast cancer for 18 years. The disease returned four times.

“And she just called,” Wade said. “For her to be here, to witness and to share what’s happened, that’s a huge gift.”


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