By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008
The journey to tonight's Academy Awards -- perhaps to make that giddy walk up the stage to collect an Oscar -- began for one Washington family two generations ago on the Redskins playing field.
Sean Fine, the grandson of a Redskins photographer and the son of a documentary producer, and his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, are nominees at the awards show for "War/Dance," a documentary they wrote, directed and edited in their Chevy Chase basement. The film tells the story of a group of Ugandan refugee schoolchildren who are escaping the ravages of civil war by training for a dance competition.
In Washington, a hometown crowd and a vibrant documentary community will be cheering for them, knowing that an Oscar win could elevate the District's position in the film world as a place where global issues and politics are articulated through art.
In Los Angeles, the Fines are caught up in the hectic whirl of a nominee preparing for a ceremony broadcast in almost 200 countries. Ensconced at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel this weekend, the Fine family went to the pool, debated whether to write thank-you speeches (they didn't, not yet), organized a party for their film crew, shopped for an important eleventh-hour purchase -- shoes to match Andrea's dress -- and went to a dinner hosted by fellow nominee Michael Moore.
Moore offered the Fines some acceptance-speech advice, should their documentary beat his "Sicko": "Be yourself and don't say anything bad about Bush."
Come Sunday night, they will be at the Kodak Theatre with Andrea wearing jewels on loan from Tiny Jewel Box, a Connecticut Avenue shop, and Sean a tuxedo from a Washington department store, plus a special item from the man who paved their path to the red carpet: a Super Bowl ring awarded to Sean's grandfather.
Nate Fine was a Redskins photographer who taught his son and grandson the power of film.
The Fine family's cinematic dynasty began in the 1930s when Nate was just a boy being treated for tuberculosis in an iron lung at a Washington hospital. Someone in the hospital gave him a camera to help pass the time, setting off his love affair with photography.
The striking pictures that Nate took of nurses and doctors in the tuberculosis ward proved to himself that he had an eye for photography.
He began working for the Washington Times-Herald and the Redskins as a photographer in 1937. He eventually dropped the newspaper job to become a football cameraman who pioneered the tradition of using film footage for training in the locker room. Former head coach George Allen called him the "Cecil B. DeMille of the National Football League."
A month before Nate Fine died in 1988, the team dedicated its Super Bowl win against the Broncos to him. He had been with them for every game but one since the team came to Washington. (He missed a 1944 exhibition game against the Chicago Bears, for his honeymoon.)
Nate and Holly Fine's son often tagged along to games. One day, when Paul Fine was about 16, his father took him onto the field and let him shoot some photos.
Paul had the eye too. Nate published some of his son's work in the program book.
"That was it; I was hooked," said Paul, who eventually worked at photo and film labs and as a part-time photographer at The Washington Post before going to work at Channel 7 as a cameraman.
He says he got a break "because I was Nate Fine's kid." At the station, he met a documentary editor who became his wife. Holly and Paul Fine formed one of the nation's celebrated documentary teams.
Paul did the shooting; Holly edited. They won almost every award in the genre: Peabodys and Emmys galore. They did documentaries about violence in America, the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, profiles of celebrities and of survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Their work was a mainstay at "60 Minutes," "Nightline," "20/20," "CBS Reports" and "Primetime." Much as Paul had followed his father onto the Redskins field, Sean and his younger brother, Bryce, often came along on interviews with Ray Charles, gang members and foreign leaders. Sean's play space was his mother's Steenbeck editing table. His favorite toys were film spools rolled down the hallway.
Paul and Holly Fine eschewed New York and Los Angeles, where many of their peers went. They were Washingtonians to the core. Holly's father owned a barbershop on Pennsylvania Avenue; he had even cut the hair of a president or two, family legend went.
"As a kid, I'd been to 48 of the 50 states," recalled Paul of family trips. "But after all those interesting places -- Miami, L.A. -- I really liked Washington, D.C., best."
Sean, 34, talks about Washington the same way. His love for the city began at RFK Stadium with his grandfather.
"I was about 4 years old. I remember vividly my grandfather, who was this old, shrunken, man," Sean said. "And he comes out of the shower next to, like, Dave Butz, who's this huge man. And they're, like, smacking each other on the back, totally naked. And I'm like, 'What's Zada doing?' And my dad says, 'He's showering. He's part of the team.' "
Family photos of Sean taking pictures of his father or running around with a plastic Fisher-Price film camera foreshadowed his future.
But the family didn't push him into film. He preferred to muck around in the Chesapeake Bay, poking at bugs and fish and frogs. He majored in zoology at Connecticut College and wanted to be a marine biologist.
On a whim, he took a film class at New York University.
"I'll never forget: I left the editing room at 3 in the morning after editing all night. I was walking down the street, and that was the moment I knew I had to do this for a living."
Sean had the eye, too.
He won an Emmy in 2001 for a documentary about a string of pigeon poisonings in New York, "The Pigeon Murders." He chased killer hornets in Japan and followed displaced children in Colombia.
Then he met a colleague at National Geographic. Andrea Nix, 37, from Rochester, N.Y., had slogged through Botswanan swamps filming crocodiles, could banter for hours about cinematography. Like Sean, Andrea had an epiphany with film after studying several subjects in college.
"With documentaries, it's like going to school your whole life, always learning something new," she said.
When Andrea called Sean from the Arctic Circle, reporting over a line crackling with static and the shouts of drunken Inuit hunters in the background that she was running out of food, he understood. When he called her from Uganda to tell her he had malaria, she knew the feeling.
Sean knew he had found his editor for life when Andrea, who is allergic to dogs, took him to the animal shelter and announced that she would put her face into every dog's face until she found one that didn't make her sneeze. Beluga, a brown, long-haired canine with a forehead hump like the whale, jumped on their bed one day with a box holding an engagement ring tied to his collar.
Sean and Andrea married in 2003 and left National Geographic to form Fine-Films. The next year, they made a documentary about fatherhood and produced their first son, Aidan.
Then they heard about the crisis in northern Uganda, where thousands of children have been orphaned, kidnapped and turned into soldiers to fight in a 20-year civil war. The children of one of the region's largest refugee camps were practicing for a nationwide dance competition. Their tortured spirits were freed by dancing and music. It was a tantalizing mix.
The area was so dangerous, few aid workers would tread there. Sean and Andrea agreed that if something happened to Sean, at least his son could be proud of what his dad was doing.
After seven weeks in Uganda and a bout of malaria, Sean returned to Chevy Chase with the footage that would help earn their Oscar nomination. Sean and Andrea, who was the film's director, helped editor Jeff Consiglio pull it together. "We love our films to have a feel. You know, like when you watch a film and it's sticky, it's on you, you can almost touch it," she said.
"When I'm out there, I know what she likes and I'm shooting for her," Sean said.
Reviewers have praised the film's beauty: color-soaked African sunsets, big blue skies, tribal beads, white feathers and large brown eyes looking right into the camera.
When Paul and Holly watched it, they cried.
"You've surpassed me," Paul told his son.
"War/Dance" won the director's award at last year's Sundance festival, along with a host of other awards.
The couple's next project is about the Tennessee Valley Authority. They have a second son, Rowan. Aidan, 3, has begun to take pictures alongside his father, mostly of trains.
One day last month, the phone rang. "The Academy" the caller ID read. The Fines were headed for the Oscars.
Andrea went to New York to get The Dress, a beaded frock with whispers of light mocha fabric around the bottom, designed by Reem Acra, who has also dressed Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angelina Jolie for the red carpet.
They are cautiously optimistic about the award. They are up against Moore's health-care documentary, two films about Iraq and one about Afghanistan.
At the ceremony, Andrea's most treasured accessory will be pictures of their sons, to remind her of what is important in life.
Sean, in an Ermenegildo Zegna tuxedo, will be wearing a Super Bowl ring, the one that the Redskins gave to his grandfather in 1988, honoring him for 51 years of great films.