A shot at an Oscar: Halifax’s Ben Proudfoot makes Academy Award shortlist | The Chronicle Herald
A moving family story from a Halifax filmmaker is on the shortlist for the 2021 Academy Awards.
Ben Proudfoot collaborated with Hollywood composer Kris Bowers on A Concerto Is a Conversation, a documentary for the New York Times’ Op-Docs series about Bowers’ grandfather Horace Bowers and his journey from the Jim Crow South of the 1940s to becoming a successful business owner in Los Angeles.
The film from Proudfoot’s Breakwater Studios is among the 10 films shortlisted for the documentary short subject category. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Documentary Branch will vote on the 10 shortlisted films chosen from the initial list of 114 between March 5 and 10, and the final nominations will be announced on Monday, March 15. The Oscars ceremony will be broadcast live on Sunday, April 25.
“It feels great! I’ve been making short documentaries in some capacity for over a decade,” said Proudfoot by phone from New York after the shortlist announcement. “The first one I made was Roots & Wings which was the graduating video for Citadel High School in 2008, and I co-directed that with Jonathan Kaiser.
“So it’s a very satisfying honour to come in the middle of a lot of hard work. Just making the shortlist is a huge honour, and who’s to say what happens next? But it was something that was unexpected and a thrill.”
Currently based in Los Angeles, Proudfoot’s film captures a conversation between Kris Bowers, who scored the 2019 best picture winner Green Book, and his grandfather Horace, who hitchhiked from Florida to Los Angeles as a young man, starting a family and supporting it by working in the dry cleaning business.
Through the course of the conversation, the composer talks about how his grandfather encouraged his musical talents and how his tenacious example inspires him to further his own art and career.
“It’s particularly a thrill for Kris and his family and Horace who, at 92, I don’t think ever expected this wonderful wellspring of attention and gratitude for his story,” said Proudfoot.
“I think that’s probably the most gratifying part of the whole thing.”
Since the release of Green Book, Kris Bowers has gone on to score the Netflix series Dear White People and Bridgerton, the Showtime series Black Monday and the Lee Daniels feature The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.
Proudfoot and the composer became friends over the past few years after crossing paths in the industry. While working on a short film project on Bowers for the L.A. Philharmonic in February 2020, the filmmaker learned of Horace’s story from Kris after a ceremony naming a city block in South L.A. after him.
“He started unraveling this amazing story about how his grandfather grew up in a small town in Florida, left the Jim Crow South and hitchhiked across the country at 17, and by spontaneous design landed in Los Angeles,” recalled Proudfoot.
“I was just rapt with this story that Kris told me, and I thought that might be the better story.”
In 2019, Proudfoot and Breakwater Films produced the Op-Docs series Almost Famous, telling the stories of individuals who nearly made history “and found happiness anyway”, while his 2016 feature documentary Rwanda & Juliet was a nominee and award winner at several international film festivals.
Working through the pandemic
Currently working on a project in New York, and able to shoot documentaries safely with a tiny crew and physical distancing, Proudfoot recently produced another New York Times project in December called Cause of Life about individuals who had passed away due to COVID-19.
“I lost my dad (Halifax lawyer Gordon Frank Proudfoot) in May, and there was no funeral and very limited ways for us to grieve in a traditional way, so there was something quite cathartic about doing that project and helping the way we did,” said Proudfoot.
“It was family members and friends telling the stories of each person’s life … I admit I wept many times while interviewing those people.”
With the announcement of the shortlist for the academy’s short documentary subject, Proudfoot will spend as much time as he can in the next two-and-a-half weeks going to bat for A Concerto Is a Conversation, to raise its profile on social media and ensure that as many members of the documentary branch get a chance to learn about the remarkable story of the Bowers family.
“I’m doing whatever I can to get the word out about the film and make sure that our film is considered,” he said. “I can’t put it out of my mind. It’s a bit of a campaign, and you can’t do anything but get people to watch the film.
“Once they watch the film, it’s up to them to decide which ones they liked best, which ones they want to vote for, and which ones they think best represent the year in filmmaking.”