Oscar Circuit: Best Documentary Feature

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The 2011 Oscar winners for Best Documentary Feature Film, "Undefeated" - (L-R) Rich Middlemas, T.J. Martin, and Daniel Lindsay.
The 2011 Oscar winners for Best Documentary Feature Film, “Undefeated” – (L-R) Rich Middlemas, T.J. Martin, and Daniel Lindsay.

In a strong and impressive year for movies, 2012 has not only given us the most compelling Oscar race in years, but in terms of documentary filmmaking, one of the most richly rewarding years the genre has ever seen. As many proclaim this to be a new Golden Age for documentaries, with more and more of them finding theaters each year, the incredible rise to prominence of the documentary feature film has given much more renewed scrutiny to Oscar’s nomination process.

New rules implemented for 2012, which forced a film to not only play New York or Los Angeles for at least one 7-day stretch but to also have a review written in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, was intended to make the process easier. However, savvy film and PR agents found a soft spot in the rules and the 2012 documentary season fell into loophole madness. The loophole is a rather obvious one – the PR reps, festival programmers, and theater managers of participating theaters simply booked documentaries for a minimum of one week’s time, invited reviewers from the New York and Los Angeles Times to write and publish reviews. Essentially, they qualified the film.

Famously, Documentary Branch chairman and Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore took to Twitter on more than one occasion during the voting cycle, bashing the process he helped implement and bemoaning the fact that nearly one hundred screeners arrived on approximately the same day, with just a few weeks left in the voting. When he tweeted the final 15 films which made Oscar’s shortlist, he praised the process and heralded the selections. Controversy, politics, and egos aside, these five Best Documentary nominees are unquestionably worthy and important films; the kind which haunt you long after the credits start rolling and/or the television is turned off.

The 2012 Nominees are:

  • 5 Broken Cameras – Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi
  • The Gatekeepers – Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, Estelle Fialon
  • How To Survive A Plague – David France, Howard Gertler
  • The Invisible War – Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
  • Searching For Sugar Man – Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn

5-Broken-Cameras5 BROKEN CAMERAS
Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi
These are the first Academy Award nominations for Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi.

One of two nominated films to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5 Broken Cameras is a film which seems like an interesting little project and becomes something incendiary, powerful, and devastating. Focusing on a non-violent protest in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank, against the encroaching advance of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, director Emad Burnat began filming everything he could. Initially, his film was for his newborn son – a gift with which he could look back and reflect on the events which occurred in his life, when the memories seem unable to hold on to them. Instead, Burnat documented so much more.

The titular cameras are destroyed and Burnat and co-director Guy Davidi, who joined the project years after Burnat began gathering footage, craft these camera destructions as makeshift chapters to an escalating story of tragedy. Burnat’s family grow more and more fearful of their situation and when taking part in the protest with fellow olive farmers whose land will be seized by these Israeli advancements, Burnat is attacked himself, and sees a community of protesters get bullied into confrontation. Ultimately this lends itself to more tragedy, all captured by Burnat and later, Davidi’s always alert camera work.

With the chaos ramping up, it is sometimes aggravating to see someone get attacked or be in a frightening scene and then see a man walking around with a camera slung on his shoulder. However, through tough scenes of death and loss, Burnat and Davidi provide a snapshot and peelback on what the conflict looks like from a raw and gritty perspective. With Burnat’s home movies providing much of the film’s content, 5 Broken Cameras is a narrated investigative report from a man who has seen too much and seeks to preserve whatever history he can pass along to his son.

5 Broken Cameras surprised a lot of people with its nomination here, but honestly, when the prestigious Cinema Eye Honors awarded it with its highest prize and you factor in its win at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, it becomes quite difficult to question why it is nominated here.

GatekeepersTHE GATEKEEPERS
Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, and Estelle Fialon
These are the first Academy Award nominations for Moreh, Kowarsky, and Fialon.

And now the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where 5 Broken Cameras gave viewers a cinema verite look at what is happening on the ground, The Gatekeepers remarkably collects six heads of the Israeli Secret Service – The Shin Bet – to discuss their nearly 40 year history in Israeli intelligence. Director Dror Moreh has been making the rounds in the last few days, discussing how the film came together, how he convinced these former agents to share stories of their work on camera, and how the impressive computer animation was utilized to amplify the details Moreh pulled out of his subjects.

The Gatekeepers does what few investigative films can do well – present the story directly from the mouths of those who were integral to the subject at hand. While an argument can be made that the computer animation slants and persuades viewers and hereby robs the film of objectivity, Dror Moreh’s interviewees go far deeper then anticipated, making the film one of the most insightful and disquieting of 2012.

Opening in theaters this Friday, February 1, 2013, The Gatekeepers is stunning, if not dense. Moreh and his team may only scratch the surface on what these men have seen and encountered, but when he earns their trust; when he gets these officers to share candid thoughts on assassinations, torture, the failures and fleeting successes of peace accords, and terrorism around the world, The Gatekeepers reaches a depth and power few films can achieve. Inspired by and compared to Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog Of War, Dror Moreh has impressed many and captured many people’s attention with his stunning and provocative second film.

HowToSurviveAPlagueHOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
David France, Howard Gertler
These are the first Academy Award nominations for France and Gertler
.

A film heralded by the staff at Awards Circuit, How To Survive A Plague was the lone documentary Best Picture nominee in our inaugural Circuit Awards for 2013.

Arriving in a flood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, waves of gay men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City began exhibiting skin lesions and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer common with folks of Mediterranean descent.  Dubbed “gay cancer”, homosexuals and gay communities began hearing that a rapidly climbing number of people in the gay community were becoming infected and dying off.  Worse yet, the conditions the men suffered from only accelerated along other life-threatening illnesses including pneumonia.  An epidemic was in full swing.

Then it got worse.  Discovering that the infection was passed through blood, doctors identified that unprotected anal sex among gay men was the contributing factor.  Then, IV drug users began to contract the disease.  A select number of blood transfusion patients became ill.  Heterosexual and bisexual women also fell sick and children became diagnosed.  A pandemic was upon us.  Since the disease was still largely viewed as emanating from a gay lifestyle, most in a position of action were slow to react or simply inert in setting aside discriminatory biases and trying to stop the increasing numbers of those dying from a new Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

How To Survive A Plague documents this in heartwrenching fashion and puts a spotlight on the efforts of activist organization ACT-UP, who formed in 1987 to raise awareness after millions of people had succumbed to the disease. As the organization moved forward, they seemingly documented everything and director David France unearthed more than 700 hours of footage, comprised of strategy meetings and peaceful and more aggressive protests.  He also dug deeper, acquiring home video footage of some of the ACT-UP foot soldiers who bravely fought hard, but ultimately succumbed to the disease.

Inspiring, tragic, and ultimately a bittersweet and unshakable film, retaining a voice and a proclamation that should be heard by everyone.  The pandemic is still among us.  Lives are still being lost.  And be it not for the brave men and women who fought tirelessly to bring AIDS and HIV awareness to the public eye through essentially any means necessary, the number of those no longer with us would be even more incomprehensible.

InvisibleWarTHE INVISIBLE WAR
Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
This is the second Academy Award nomination for Kirby Dick. He was previously nominated for feature documentary Twist Of Faith in 2004. This is the first Academy Award nomination for Amy Ziering.

Sometimes you can no longer be silent. Sometimes the voiceless need a voice. Sometimes the horrors of real life must be exposed, brought into the light, and revealed in all their ugliness. The Invisible War is a sickening, gut-wrenching film which is as absolutely important and necessary as any documentary of the last several years. Famed director Kirby Dick unearths hundreds of real stories of sexual assault and abuse in our military and as deplorable as these stories are, the lasting effects of the abuse are shockingly only part of these victims’ stories.

The numbers are as alarming as they are unfathomable. In 2011, more than 22,000 soldiers were sexually assaulted with 20% of all active-duty female soldiers victimized. Female soldiers aged 18 to 21 accounted for more than half of those assaults and a study commissioned in 2009 determined that 20,000 men had also been assaulted at some point during their military service. Screening veterans beyond the current military ranks only escalates the figures and in 2010, only 244 perpetrators ever saw any form of a conviction. The Invisible War shares the stories of those who have suffered horribly from one of the worst cover-ups in United States military history and every moment of this film breathes heartbreak, empathy, and searing anger and despair.

Soldier after soldier comes forward and we see them as mothers, wives, daughters, and husbands and see the debilitating anguish and pain the abuse has had on their lives. One father told his daughter that military life was the safest and most rewarding job a person could ever ask for. His daughter’s first sexual encounter was a military rape. Another woman was raped by her Coast Guard supervisor and while an investigation was taking place, he was promoted to an exclusive rank and moved to a new location, rendering the case closed. Watching an aloof government fail to recognize, address, or care about these victims, seeing the disgusting bureaucracy which seems to work almost in concert with the military’s cover-up of these atrocities, makes Kirby Dick’s film vital and demanding change.

The Invisible War is a difficult watch, voters likely went through a box of tissues by the midway mark, but Kirby Dick’s masterpiece is galvanizing, its defiance and whistleblowing voice screaming as loud and as guttural as possible.

searching_for_sugar_man.jpgSEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn
This is the first Academy Award nomination for Malik Bendjelloul. This is the second Academy Award nomination for Simon Chinn. He previously won an Oscar as producer for Documentary Feature winner 
Man On Wire in 2008.

A documentary which works as a comedy, a mystery, a road-trip adventure, a human interest drama, a musical, and a satisfying tale of redemption and fame, Searching For Sugar Man is undeniably one of the most endearing films of the year.

Centered around the failed music career of early-1970s singer/songwriter Rodriguez, Searching For Sugar Man tells a remarkable story, which initially presents as a sad tale of a man, with important things to say about the plight of the poor, whose poetic folk music was melodic, timely, catchy, and completely ignored. After a couple of critically acclaimed albums were released, Rodriguez vanished into the ether, never to be heard from again. From the few who were aware of Rodriguez, urban legends swirled around tragic suicide stories, including one legendary tale of the singer becoming so depressed at the failure of his music career that he publicly set himself on fire during a concert.

For the first-half of the film, director Malik Bendjelloul introduces us to Stephen and Craig, two men from Cape Town, South Africa who not only share with us their love of Rodriguez’s music, but reveal that Rodriguez is anything but an unknown in their country. In fact, Rodriguez is a staple of South African radio and his 1970 debut album “Cold Fact” became a massive hit in the country in the 1970s, spawning several hit singles and sales which made Rodriguez…yes, Rodriguez…more popular in South Africa than The Beatles. And bigger than Elvis.

So whatever became of him? Did he commit suicide? If he was still alive, why had he never toured the country, made any appearances or given any interviews? What happened to the enigmatic dark-haired, sunglasses wearing mystery man who provided the soundtrack to the lives of a generation of South Africans? The answers to those questions are only half of the Sugar Man story and Bendjelloul’s film takes an amazing turn midway through that takes the film from a compelling and curious investigation to something magical, memorable, and quite beautiful. Few films can grip you like this one can and those wonderful tears of joy I was wiping away formed directly in my heart.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

This is one strong and richly deserving list of nominees, each film offering something memorable, thoughtful, and urging us to do more than just watch. Through broken cameras and secret service agents, we see two viewpoints of a lingering and untenable conflict. We are moved to demand that our heroic soldiers, those who sacrifice for our freedoms every day, be treated with dignity, respect, and that somehow and some way, an unfathomable culture of abuse can be put to rest.

And we are inspired and moved to tears by two films existing on polar ends of the spectrum which speak to the will of the human spirit to never give up. In the case of How To Survive A Plague, activists would not stop until they could stifle and remedy the illness that was ravaging their community. With the mysterious recluse named Rodriguez, a dream world awaits a man who sang as loud as he could, thought no one was listening, only to later find out, people were listening and singing right along with him.

I can point to films like The Imposter, Central Park Five, and West Of Memphis and rail about films that deserve to be nominated this year. Other years, believe you me, I would. But after viewing these five nominees, I have but few complaints. What a memorable list, and what a challenge for Academy voters to decide on.

My sense? With four emotionally challenging films drawing out emotions of hopelessness, anger, and confusion, Academy voters may look to their artistic hearts, vicariously connect Rodriguez with their individual failures or the failures of those who tried to make it in the entertainment business and were denied a chance at stardom. Recent controversies over accuracy aside, I think no movie wins you over like Searching For Sugar Man and having the now 70-year old Rodriguez standing on Oscar’s stage will likely be  far too difficult to pass up for most voters.

If I Had A Vote: The Invisible War
Predicted Winner: Searching For Sugar Man

SNUBS (yeah…you’ll want to jot these films down. All of them.):

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Bully
Central Park Five
Chasing Ice
Detropia
The House I Live In
The Imposter
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God
Samsara
Side By Side
This Is Not A Film
The Waiting Room
West Of Memphis