2013 Oscar Nominated Documentaries

Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses five documentaries to highlight in their yearly awards ceremony. Are these the “best” documentaries of the year? Critical consensus suggests not, but the Oscars aren’t about what’s “best,” no matter what their category names claim.

The Oscars are about giving the stage to the films, performances, and technical work the Hollywood-centric film industry most wants to show off to the rest of the world. Films, performances, and technical work gets featured for all sorts of reasons, but the documentary category most often features films with messages the Academy members want the world to hear. Let’s spend a moment with each film.*

5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras follows a group of Palestinians as they struggle against the continued encroachment of Jewish settlements in Palestine. The five cameras of the film’s title refer to the video cameras owned by one of the Palestinians, Emad Burnat, who is at the center of the group and films their every conversation and move. Much like Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash of 2010’s Banksy-helmed Exit Through the Gift Shop, Burnat is ostensibly obsessed with filming every moment of his family’s life, so when his community begins protesting Israel’s policies, his camera comes along for the demonstrations… and gets broken in the process.

The conceit is that Burnat was just always filming and only later did he and his co-director Guy Davidi understand what they had and assemble it into a film. This framework breaks down as the film goes one, however, and Burnat and co. seem to be confronting the Israeli military forces for the purpose of filming their reactions. This, unfortunately, calls into question the documentary’s veracity.

The conflict between Palestine and Israel is certainly a topic more Christians should research instead of giving Israel carte blanche to do to the Palestinians whatever they want. Even God in the Old Testament didn’t allow Israel to treat foreigners (if, indeed, the Palestinians are foreigners) in whatever way they chose. Whatever your politics or eschatology, we have to love one another.

The more interesting angle to 5 Broken Cameras and its Oscar nomination for me, though, is the fact that this documentary is primarily a celebration of movie-making. Hollywood’s business has inspired this impoverished Palestinian man to carry a camera around with him everywhere. To what degree does the camera’s lens remove him from the lives of his family and friends? To what degree is the audience removed from them as well by the screen? Why is humanity so obsessed with recording the minutiae of life, be that recording method cave paintings (which look to me like prehistoric Instagram shots of last millennium’s lunch) or high definition video?

How To Survive A Plague

How To Survive A Plague chronicles the activists who crusaded for AIDS research and medical funding throughout the later third of the last century. Via lobbying, protests, awareness campaigns, and community action, the AIDS activists were able to transform AIDS, at least in the West, into a manageable condition instead of an automatic death sentence.

The documentary works by focusing on the personalities at the center of the two main groups – ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) – and following the interpersonal dynamics of the movements as they begin campaigning, change tactics, and accomplish (and fail to accomplish) many of their goals.

Most impressive to me was the documentary’s contention that HIV positive people were better able to survive the more they supported one another. They had to learn to work together both to challenge U.S. leaders to provide better treatment and to raise awareness within their community. They had to form a community, and as that community splinters in later years, the efficacy of their campaign diminishes.

One scene which explicates the Catholic church’s denigration of condoms in the late 80s was particularly heartbreaking for me. Condom use helps slow the spread of AIDS, and the church forbid condom use. For the AIDS activists, that was equivalent to being a proponent of death for the AIDS infected. For the Catholic church, it was a way to support life by encouraging child-bearing. Church leaders likely weren’t considering AIDS victims at all.

And that was the problem. When one group refuses to acknowledge the existence and trials of another group, and edicts are issued, the first group hurts the second. To fail to see is to fail to love, and that was the Catholic church’s great error. It turned its face away from AIDS victims to its shame.

The Invisible War

The Invisible War details the high incidence of rape within the U.S. armed forces. The documentary interviews many rape victims, male and female, looks at how they try to put their lives back together after being raped, and details the U.S. military’s poor record of acknowledging the existence of rape and resourcing those who have been raped.

Of all of this year’s nominees, this documentary was, for me, the most infuriating, both in subject and in form. The onslaught of interviews with rape victims is rightly devastating. I commend The Invisible War for being so discomforting. We need to be shaken into better caring for these men and women. On some level, almost any methods are justifiable in getting us to change our culture of violence that encourages this kind of sexual violence in any environment.

However, the documentary is also guilty of highjacking its audience in what I consider underhanded ways. This highjacking undermines the documentary’s power. Many of the scenes of victims seeking treatment feel very staged, as if the filmmakers encouraged their subjects to pursue medical help in ways everyone knew wouldn’t work. The documentary also vilifies certain government officials for refusing to be featured in the documentary. Finally, and most egregiously, the filmmakers stage a media event in which their subjects are given a moment of media exposure, then the filmmakers present this event as if it is some great victory.

All this works to make the real subject of this documentary the documentary itself. The film, its emotional power, and its victory seem to be The Invisible War‘s true subject. it’s a shame that its other focus, the victims of sexual violence and the system that fosters such violence, gets obscured by the documentary’s self-congratulatory methods.

It should come as no surprise then that this film gained an Oscar nomination, since, as I mentioned previously, the Oscars exist to celebrate filmmaking in all its forms.

Searching For Sugar Man

Upon first glance, Searching For Sugar Man is the most idiosyncratic of this year’s Oscar nominees. The documentary details the life of Detroit-based musician Sixto Rodriguez and the impact his music has had on the people of South Africa. The documentary presents itself as a mystery of sorts, so I’ll do my best to keep from spoiling its secrets on the off-chance you don’t know them already.

As an investigation into the life of Rodriguez, the film is fascinating. Rodriguez, we learn, after making a couple of albums in the 70s to almost no domestic acclaim, slipped into a private life of humble community service. For the white, anti-apartheid activists of South Africa, his music became a kind of rallying cry. The details of his death reached the realm of myth, and his left-behind music fueled a revolution. Rodrigues then is presented as a kind of messianic figure in the film.

On the one hand, the film features Rodriguez’s humility, generosity, and gracious service to the people in his neighborhood. On the other, the film revels in and celebrates his fame in South Africa, suggesting that the real worth of his life is encapsulated in that fame. One interview with his daughter even serves as a kind of lament that Rodriguez never saw the financial royalties his album sales in South Africa should have garnered him. The film doesn’t know what to do with a man who eschews fame and wealth and notoriety, so it simply glosses over his most apparent values and tries to highlight his supposed greatness.

The film also implies that the white Afrikaans were at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement. I can’t recall a single black South African is featured once. If I’m wrong about this, please, correct me, because I found this profoundly disturbing. While I do not doubt that many white South Africans were part of the revolution, history proves that it was at least a joint black/white effort if not primarily a product of the work of black South Africans.

Searching For Sugar Man, like last year’s Best Picture winner The Artist, is so consumed with the notion of the goodness of fame and wealth, that it can’t fathom a happy ending that doesn’t include those things. In the case of The Artist, that myopia meant telling an empty story. In the case of Searching For Sugar Man, it means missing the point of a real man’s life. Fortunately, his life shines so brightly, he cannot be completely obscured. Unfortunately, the documentary isn’t as good as it could have been.

I do not believe that Hollywood is solely consumed with fame and wealth, but I do see those things as two of Hollywood’s most superficial and distracting values. Most of Hollywood’s product has a lot to offer in the way of mercy, grace, and love. I celebrate that goodness in my reviews regularly, sometimes straining to see it in unlikely places, I’ll admit. It’s when a story like Rodriguez’s comes along that I most lament Hollywood’s superficial side, however. If you see Searching For Sugar Man, don’t miss the man while marveling at his South African fame.

*The Gatekeepers was unavailable for me to see prior to publishing this article. I hope to get ahold of it somehow and augment this article later.