At the age of 84, documentary legend Sheila Nevins today earned the first Oscar nomination of her career.
Nevins was nominated in the Documentary Short category this morning for her directorial debut, The ABCs of Book Banning, from MTV Documentary Films. She has won more than 30 Emmy Awards during her illustrious career, but this is her first Oscar recognition.
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“It was a sleepless night,” Nevins says of the anticipation for the announcement. “It’s always a sleepless night. This was a particularly sleepless night.”
Her film, co-directed by Nazenet Habtezghi and Trish Adlesic and produced by Adlesic, examines the surge of book banning in U.S. schools, and gives a platform to kids who share what it means to them to be denied access to reading materials in their libraries.
“I felt a rage to make it,” Nevins told Deadline back in October. “It had to be done and it had to be watchable.”
Joining The ABCs of Book Banning in the short doc category are The Barber of Little Rock, directed by John Hoffman and Christine Turner; Island in Between, directed by S. Leo Chiang; The Last Repair Shop, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, and Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó, directed by Sean Wang.
The Last Repair Shop marks the second collaboration between Proudfoot and Bowers to earn Oscar recognition. They were nominated for their 2020 short A Concerto Is a Conversation, which focused on the journey of Bowers’ grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr., from the segregated South to Los Angeles, where he built a successful business career. The Last Repair Shop shines a spotlight on the handful of unsung people who toil in obscurity to make sure kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District have access to working musical instruments. Some of the young musicians who benefit from access to free instruments also appear in the film.
Proudfoot pronounced himself, “overwhelmed, thrilled, jumping for joy!” over his latest Oscar nomination. Before sunrise today, he and Bowers headed to the place where they had filmed their short. “We went down to the repair shop this morning, so we got to celebrate with the repair people and the kids. Unbelievable.”
This is the third nomination in the past four years for Proudfoot. He solo-directed the short The Queen of Basketball, which won the 2022 Academy Award. Bowers, a much in demand composer in Hollywood, was shortlisted this year for writing the score for The Color Purple. He is a graduate of the LAUSD who, like the kids in The Last Repair Shop, got access as a young musician to freely repaired and freely-provided musical instruments (in his case, the piano).
“To be working on something that’s representing these people who were so vulnerable in sharing their stories with us, it just really feels like ice cream on top of cakes, on top of cherries,” Bowers. “It’s pretty thrilling.” As he spoke, his dog Marley barked approval. Bowers’ baby daughter Coda cooed her approval as well, a chorus of supporters for the Bowers-Proudfoot achievement.
The next challenge for the filmmakers will be getting tickets to the Oscars for their cast, family and friends. Among those they hope to bring to the red carpet are young violinist Porché Brinker, who opens The Last Repair Shop and plays on the closing credits.
“What a star. What an amazing little girl!” Proudfoot said. “That’s really what the film is all about. She’s the future — future of Los Angeles, future of music, future of humanity. That’s who Kris and I wanted to champion from the beginning. So, to bring her to the Academy Awards, the world stage, makes us so proud.”
The Last Repair Shop is from Searchlight Pictures, L.A. Times Studios, and Breakwater Studies. Nominee Island in Between, meanwhile, is the latest Oscar nominee for the New York Times Op-Docs series (Proudfoot’s The Queen of Basketball also hailed from the Times’ Op-Docs). Island in Between earned the first Oscar nomination for director S. Leo Chiang and producer Jean Tsien, who were both born in Taiwan but have spent a good portion of their lives in the U.S.
“On the rural Taiwanese outer islands of Kinmen, just 2 miles off the coast of China… Chiang weaves lyrical vignettes of tourist visits and local life with his own narrative as someone negotiating ambivalent personal bonds to Taiwan, China, and the U.S.,” the Times writes of the film, which hit the paper’s website and YouTube channel in December.
“We’re blown away for sure. We’re grateful,” Chiang said of the nomination. “We’re happy that our film’s going to get seen more and we’re happy that Taiwanese stories will get told more. We’re just very excited about that.”
Tsien worked on the sound for the 2000 Oscar nominated narrative film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She has produced a number of acclaimed documentaries, including 76 Days and Free Chol Soo Lee. Island in Between is the first Taiwanese documentary honored with an Oscar nomination.
“When we started to film in 2022, August, it was just like observational film,” Tsien said with a degree of surprise over the Oscar recognition. “We did not know this film was going to go this far.”
Nevins, who ran HBO’s documentary division for decades and more recently launched MTV’s documentary unit, has attended about 20 Oscars in the past.
“I have suffered unbelievably at all of them. Not so much because the film was mine — sometimes yes, and we’d lose or we’d win — but mostly because you have to wear high heels,” she joked. “You have to dress up and you have to get makeup, and you have to be with the most beautiful women in the world — and men — and you have to walk in and you have to sit in the worst seat in the whole house because you’re not one of them [the glamorous people]. And, so, you feel your place. You feel like there’s a caste system. I’ve never gone to the Oscars without suffering, win or lose. Never.”
Documentary would not have become as popular a genre as it is without the work of Nevins, who helped make nonfiction films and series as entertaining and engrossing for audiences as fictional content. She’s east-coast based and doesn’t guarantee she will attend the 96th Academy Awards in L.A. on March 10.
“Why do you have to subject your heart to such strife? Why?” she asks, adding philosophically, “You’re going to win or lose whether you’re there or not, right?”
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