Meeting a future Oscar winner…

Strolling home from breakfast along Ponsonby Road the other day I had the pleasure of bumping into my friend Bonnie Sumner – and her future Oscar-winning mother; Barbara Sumner Burstyn and her husband Thomas made a documentary called This Way of Life which has been short-listed for an Academy Award. We find out if they go on to be nominated – becoming one of five finalists – on January 25.

I saw the film at a festival screening a while back and they’re in with a really good chance – briefly, the film’s about a very warm, natural family who hit a run of bad luck and head to the hills to live rough for a while, earning a living breaking in wild horses. The photography is incredible and something about the family’s deliberate simpleness and relationship with their environment really gets you. I was moved by shots of 3 year old kids standing tiptoe on massive horses to pick fruit, while the woman I went with was touched by the bit where the handsome muscular dad – that’s him above – goes nudie horseback swimming in the river. Maybe she could have banged on about that less.

Anyway, although I’ve haven’t seen most of the other contenders, I feel This Way of Life really has what it takes to scoop the prize – the only problem being, to my mind, the fact that it’s up against Banksy’s buzz-mongering monster Exit Through The Gift Shop.

It’s interesting to hear, however, that Exit is raising eyebrows for it’s inclusion in the documentary category, because, well… it’s not really a doco – if you read my earlier post, you’ll know what I mean. Exit’s action centres on a graffiti-loving Frenchman who starts following the street artist Banksy – but unless you were born with a tin ear, it’s pretty clear to viewers that the accent is phony and that the character of the Frenchman is simply a projected version of every Englishman’s idea of a foreigner – ie, Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

This begs the question of whether the film should really be treated as a feature, and possibly the Academy is already sensitive to eyebrows having been raised because they posted a press release recently on the definition of a documentary film, calling it

a theatrically released nonfiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis is on fact and not on fiction

On that definition, Exit kind of sneaks into the category, seeing as it deals with a generally factual world (via lots of ‘reenactments’ – or just ‘actments’) – and that leaves me worried about This Way of Life’s chances.

You see, I think the Academy’s selections are made based on their ideas about themselves, as much as on quality film-making – and Banksy’s film – late-arriving and rather stale joke that it is – is just the sort of thing I imagine the cinema establishment would feel good about ‘getting’. Doing so would show what good sports they are… Wink wink, they tell us, we’re hip and we’re playing along….

Anyway, we’ll find out how things develop on January 25 when, despite being a massive fan of Banksy’s art, I’ll be cheering for the local team.

Aside from enjoying gossiping about films with a possible Oscar winner, the other interesting part of my chat with Barbara was about how crucial she felt social media had been to the success of their film. They made it entirely independently, and have promoted it the same way. Barbara’s daughter Bonnie has a PR company which helps spread the word via conventional media, while the film’s 5,330 Facebook fans amount to a seriously useful base of support when it comes to getting word out about screenings, putting bums on seats, and spreading news about the film’s many festival successes.

To someone who has written a novel and is trying make money from people reading it, this was pretty interesting stuff. We yakked about self-publishing, self-promotion and cutting out the middle man, and what came out of it for me (when I thought about it later) is that creative industries are going through massive changes. Everything about the ways in which people make and get attention for their films, books and music is up for grabs – and I think people like Barbara Sumner Burstyn have a lot to share about how that’s happening.

So what I’d really like to do – if you’re up for it Barbara – is to get you on the blog and pick your brain on the subject. What do you think? I reckon it’s something a lot of young creatives would find very useful. Though I’m not sure we’ll get a chance anywhere near Jan 25: I suspect – and hope – that things in the Sumner Burstyn camp will become hell of a busy on that Tuesday night.

* Learn more about This Way of Life here. And follow the Facebook page here.


  1. I saw this film bro. Inspiring stuff. However, you can’t help wonder that its all a little imbalanced. The relationship between him and his step father appeared tragic but it would of been nice to dig into the paternal side of the story. In this respect it didn’t quite hit a doco tone and lent itself to a rather a beautiful story based around some of the facts

  2. I can confirm the French accent of Mister Brainwash in Exit is definitely not a fake. The guy sounds genuinely French from beginning to end… unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s in Talladega Night.

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