Will the Most "Important" Films Win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and Short?

Will the Most "Important" Films Win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and Short?

Feb 20, 2013

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we look at the 2013 Oscar nominees, all of which could be called "important" films.

A year ago in this column I asked the question “Do the Oscars Still Matter?” In 2013 the question should be “Do the Oscar Movies Matter?” And the answer to that one at this time is yes. More than normal, the current Academy Award nominees are comprised of titles with heavy subject matter. Even those films that don’t address the topics very seriously are spawning discussions about torture, race, mental illness, political compromise and to a lesser degree climate change.

It’s very fitting that one of the Best Picture contenders, also the favorite to win, is about a true story in which Hollywood saves the day. Movies still matter. And the Oscars give us a context in which to celebrate this fact.

Fewer people are talking about the 10 nominees in the documentary categories, however, in spite of this being the larger arena for “important,” issue-driven cinema. In the feature group we have docs on such real-life problems as AIDS, rape in the U.S. military and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which covers two separate films. And the shorts address immigration, the economy, homelessness, joblessness, cancer, heart disease, poverty in America, poverty in Africa and the elderly.

Not since the dawn of the documentary presence at the Academy Awards has there been such a display of how this medium and specifically the nonfiction mode has the power to make a difference. Back then it was all wartime propaganda films by notable Hollywood figures like Frank Capra, John Ford and Louis Hayward, and their main empirical influence was helping to boost civilian and service morale and sell bonds and (less desirably) decrease enlistment.

All five of the current feature documentary nominees have either inspired change or provoked a conversation about change. That even goes for the lightest of the bunch, Searching for Sugar Man, which is also the expected winner. The film might be “fluff” compared to the others and it is frustrating how it whitewashes apartheid, racism and corruption in the music industry, but if we’re just talking about causing something to happen, it might be the most powerful agent:

Sugar Man made Rodriguez a star in America 40 years after his initial failure to make it big.

Of course, if there’s any truth to his music being instrumental in ending apartheid, this could be a bigger deal than it sounds. Maybe his recently announced third album will bring about world peace. Kidding aside, though, there’s no denying the film has had a real effect on its subject and its audience. Everybody calling it the “entertaining” one of the nominees is right, but there’s a little more to it than that.

As for the other films, they’re acceptably labeled more “important” with regard to their scope, because a greater number of people are or could be benefited through their existence. The Invisible War is already improving policy on handling sexual abuse cases in the Armed Forces. How to Survive a Plague is a chronicle of past achievement by activists yet it’s being recognized for how moving and inspiring it is for a new generation, and not just for AIDS causes.

Neither The Gatekeepers nor 5 Broken Cameras has changed policy within the Israeli government (yet), but combined they’ve been building a conversation through their appeals to, respectively, the brain and the heart. The former has been popular at cinemas in Israel, though director Dror Moreh believes its best bet is to be seen by U.S. leaders and impact through outside pressure. In the meantime, the Israeli government’s support for both films financially has sparked a domestic debate related to their content, and the subsequent defense for political balance in the arts there is encouragement for further critical discourse.

Again, in the shorts category there is a more positively enjoyable favorite, the teen artist profile Inocente, yet this is still an “important” film with a cause, tackling the issue of the young girl’s citizenship and housing situation and education. And it also highlights an organization doing good things (ARTS: A Reason to Survive), which is a common trait for nominees for this award, often allowing the organizations themselves to “win” with a mention onstage during the acceptance speech.

While some short docs seem more like direct advertisements of schools and hospitals than others (2011 winner Strangers No More, for instance), the category tends to fill up with titles that not necessarily will make a difference but that showcase people who are changing lives. Of course, showcasing them does have the likely effect of viewers in turn giving donations to those people. A lot of times these do-gooders are even in attendance at the Oscars, where they’re surrounded by tons of Hollywood figures with large checkbooks.

It’s interesting that at least three of this year’s nominees are being likened to last year’s winner, Saving Face, which featured a life-changing plastic surgeon helping Pakistani women who’ve had acid thrown in their faces. Now we have Open Heart, about a surgeon helping African children with serious cardiac issues, Mondays at Racine, about salon owners helping women with cancer, and Inocente, partly about a nonprofit helping kids overcome adversity through creative arts.

For a number of weeks, since its premiere at Sundance last month, Sebastian Junger’s Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? has been on my mind as I’m constantly thinking about the Oscar-nominated docs (see it on HBO in April). In the film, which pays tribute to the late Oscar-nominated photojournalist Tim Hetherington (who codirected Restrepo with Junger), there’s a sequence at the 2011 ceremony with Hetherington on the red carpet and, in voice-over, talking later about how he had felt guilty being there instead of with his peers in the Middle East covering the Arab Spring.

I can’t help wondering if any of this year’s nominees will be feeling guilty about attending a fancy celebration of, primarily, entertainment. Will 5 Broken Cameras codirector Emad Burnat feel he could be doing more good in his Palestinian village (especially given that he has already been harassed at the airport and nearly denied entry into the U.S.)? Should any of the others be hard at work looking for the next important cause or issue to document?

Or is there enough hope that people will talk more about the winning film and its respective important cause, even if that cause is giving a music artist his long-overdue break? While it's hard to argue exactly which of the documentary nominees is the most important film, we can at least trust that an important film will win this year, and hopefully this in turn reminds people that movies are powerful and definitely still matter.

Categories: Documentary
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