BOSTON – Behind the spotlight on this year’s Oscar nominees for best feature documentary is a soft-spoken and camera-shy film professor at Harvard who taught three of the directors in the 1990s, encouraging their work and inspiring them to greatness.
Rob Moss, who has taught at Harvard for 25 years, says he’s not surprised that Jehane Noujaim, Joshua Oppenheimer and Richard Rowley, all 39, have achieved individual acclaim. All three credit Moss with helping them develop their vision — but he says humbly that he doesn’t know what he did to inspire them.
“It was not something I planned or set out to do,” Moss said. “Teaching is a lot more about not knowing than knowing. It is about giving students the freedom to find out what filmmaker they want to be.”
Rowley directed the nominated film “Dirty Wars” — based on the book by the same name by Jeremy Scahill — which looks critically at the involvement of the U.S. military in the Middle East. Oppenheimer, his former classmate and dorm neighbour, directed “The Act of Killing,” a dark look into the mass killings of communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the 1960s.
Noujaim, who graduated with Oppenheimer in 1997, directed “The Square,” a detailed depiction of the Egyptian revolution from start to finish.
Noujaim won the Directors Guild of America award in late January for “The Square,” competing against all the Oscar-nominated films but “Dirty Wars.” That could foreshadow an edge for her because in the last five years, four of the DGA-winning films for best feature documentary also won the Oscar in that category that year.
Last week, “The Act of Killing” won the London Critics’ Circle Film Award for best documentary, a category added in 2011. No previous winners of the London award have also won Oscars.
Nominated with the Harvard trio for the Oscar are Morgan Neville’s “20 Feet From Stardom,” about the unsung backup singers behind such rock stars as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder — and “Cutie and the Boxer,” directed by Zachary Heinzerling, a glimpse of the 40-year marriage of New York boxing painter, Ushio Shinohara and Noriko, his former art student.
Last month, “20 Feet From Stardom” won the 2014 Critics’ Choice Award for best documentary feature — putting it in good standing for the Oscars, too. Three of the five past winners of the Critics’ Choice also claimed an Oscar the year they won.
Moss, who is in his early 60s, is known in film circles for his 2008 film “Secrecy,” and his 2003 film “The Same River Twice,” both of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Moss is not just a professor but also makes beautiful films,” said Noujaim.
Rowley said that although Harvard is not a renowned film school, he could not imagine going to a better place to hone his craft of filmmaking. “Robb completely changed the way I shoot things,” he said. “He taught me to take the camera off the track and fully embrace the hand-held esthetics.”
While at Harvard, Rowley and Oppenheimer became good friends.
“We lived down the hall from each other, cooked meals together and argued back and forth about films,” said Rowley. “It is remarkable that our careers have evolved in parallel while still being thousands of miles apart.”
Oppenheimer was also inspired by Moss. He said professors like Moss and film professor Dusan Makavejev encouraged students to discover their vision, whatever it may be.
“I learned at Harvard how to cultivate a kind of sensibility where you form questions in cinematic form and answer those questions in cinematic form,” he said, which is demonstrated in “The Act of Killing.”
“Josh was intrigued with the world and the complexity of it even when he was an undergraduate,” Moss said. “He was widely imaginative, the opposite of orthodox,” and that shone in his nominated film, he said.
Noujaim, who was originally in the pre-medical program at Harvard, said professors like Moss — whom she considers to be a life-long friend and mentor — developed her passion for film and influenced her decision to switch fields.
“What happened at Harvard really set me on my path,” she said. “I took a lot of lessons from my early days with Robb Moss about the importance of collaboration.”
Noujaim, said Moss, “has the fearless ability to find subjects.”
“People trust her and respond to her and that allows her to get deeper into the world she is filming,” he said.
Another Moss protege and recent graduate, Damien Chazelle, 29, won the grand jury prize and the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival last week for his film, “Whiplash,” about a jazz drummer and his ruthless instructor. “Whiplash” is one of only two feature films Chazelle has made since graduating.
And Moss continues to influence aspiring directors today.
Kendra McLaughlin-Norton, 20, is a Harvard junior who is not surprised by the stellar success of Moss’ students.
“He shaped the way I look through a camera,” said McLaughlin-Norton, who has taken three classes with him and is his advisee. “I think of him every time I shoot.”
Moss, who will watch the Oscars anxiously from home, would not venture to suggest who will win.
“Who wins doesn’t matter,” he said. “Their work is so wonderful that winning an Academy will not change that.”
The Oscars, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, will air March 2 at 7 p.m.