As the Oscar race counts down, the best picture competition is looking more and more like a lock, with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” steadily moving toward its coronation.
But if Jackson’s best director victory at Saturday night’s DGA Awards only underscored the growing momentum of “King,” the DGA’s choice for best documentary — Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect” — suddenly made the Academy’s own documentary race even more suspenseful.
On Oscar night, Feb. 29, “My Architect” will again compete against three of the DGA nominees — Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” and Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Underground” — as well as Carlos Bosch’s “Balseros.” It’s a formidable group of contenders with no definite front-runner.
“Architect” has had a smaller rollout than “Friedmans” or “Fog.” Since its Nov. 14 debut, New Yorker Films has slowly moved into 15 theaters and has collected $784,830, so its DGA win had to be considered something of an underdog victory. And it eventually will air on Cinemax.
“Of course, I was surprised,” admits Kahn, speaking from his home base in Philadelphia. “But it is truly a tremendous honor, and I just felt grateful because, obviously, this is a very good field of documentaries.”
A son's search for his fatherFive years in the making, “My Architect” follows Kahn’s quest to learn more about his father, architect Louis Kahn, who died in 1974 when Nathaniel was just 11. Such buildings as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which give modern form to the vernacular of ancient Egypt and Greece, earned Louis Kahn his reputation. But the film, while surveying the architect’s work, is more an investigation into the soul of an elusive man who maintained three separate families.
“Ultimately, this is not an architecture film,” the director says. “It’s a story about a son’s search for his father. While the architecture is very important — visually, it adds a whole dimension and spirituality to the film — several of my father’s buildings went by the wayside.”
In the course of the film, Kahn interviews his two half-sisters, his mother and one of his half-sister’s mothers.
“They were certainly cautious,” he says of their agreeing to take part. “But I’m very grateful that each of them shared their own memories since each person kind of knew a different man. This becomes a portrait of a guy who was kaleidoscopic.”
Although the film was always a personal quest on the filmmaker’s part, Kahn only gradually accepted that he would play an on-camera role as well. “I think finding the right balance was the most difficult job I had,” he says. “Obviously, I had to be in there because it is a story about a son’s search for his father, but obviously, when you are so personally connected, you need the team around you — my editor Sabine Krayenbuhl and my producer Susan Behr — to keep you on track.”
The film also offers a geographic journey — born in Estonia, Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in New York’s Penn Station — but the film ends with his son journeying to Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, where his father built a massive government complex that helped define the young country, which was founded in 1971.
“The last man I meet tells me that my father was a Moses leading that country toward democracy,” marvels Kahn, who as a child could never have imagined his father’s impact on the world. “Certainly, it was very moving for me — that a Jewish architect could build the capital of a Muslim country. It certainly gives you pause to think that there are very many ways to create peace in the world.”