Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2013: Best Documentary

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

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1. THE INVISIBLE WAR

2. 5 BROKEN CAMERAS

3. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE

4. SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

5. THE GATEKEEPERS

Helmed by the Kirby Dick, the only nominee with an Oscar nom already under his belt (for his 2004 doc Twist of Faith), The Invisible War is an investigation into the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the U.S. military. Dirk smartly balances his narrowed focus on a few victims — including a straight man who was gang-raped by Air Force associates — with well-cultivated, startling statistical data (ex: 15% of soldiers who enter the military have already attempted some form of assault). The result is a picture of the military as a frighteningly insular and structurally flawed community where assaulted soldiers have nowhere to turn for help or even to report the crime, and where the perpetrators are rarely punished at all (and just forget about them serving any jail time). The one nominee with a distinct, urgent call to action, The Invisible War should win for its uncovering of ugly truths and strong contemporary relevance, but it won’t.

Here’s the thing: Searching for Sugar Man is the only uplifting doc of the bunch. While this category is generally hard to predict, voters always enjoy feeling good about themselves, so my bet’s on this engaging tale of Sixto Rodriguez, the humble, almost saintly, musician from Detroit who, despite music executives extolling him as one of the greats, was all but unknown in the U.S. Rodriguez is a fascinating figure who, unbeknownst to him, became Beatles-legendary in South Africa during apartheid and was mythologized as the singer-songwriter who committed suicide onstage. It’s a fantastic premise for a doc — who is this guy, why didn’t we know about him, and is he actually dead? — and first-time film director Malik Bendjelloul touches on some fascinating aspects of the music industry, but ultimately, the film lacks focus, seeming more interested in the financial, rather than artistic and societal, implications of Rodriguez’s supposed failure. We still don’t really know this mysterious philosopher/songwriter/manuel laborer who, even today, lives a solitary life in Detroit, but boy, do we want to (I immediately downloaded his music). Voting for this PGA and WGA-winning film is the equivalent to voting for the man himself, and voters will ultimately want to do just that. (I struggled in my own ranking, above, of the docs because I, too, have fallen for Rodriguez and want to reward his brilliance — but the film, maybe not as much.)

There’s the general feeling that two docs about Israeli-Palestinian relations will cancel each other out with voters, but for my money, 5 Broken Cameras is by far the more interesting. Capturing the non-violent resistance of the Palestinian residents of Bil’in, a village in the West Bank, against Israeli settlement, Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat shoots all the footage himself (the film’s title refers to each new camera he buys or borrows in order to continue filming), beginning with the birth of his fourth son Gibreel in 2005 through 2010. (Side Note: Gibreel is possibly the cutest little boy ever, and Burnat captures a beautiful moment when this toddler, unprompted and full innocence, offers an Israeli solider a small white flower. The soldier, as moved as I was, accepts it. (My) tears ensue.) This narrative of tragedy and forebearance is remarkable for its political activism (and such activism’s effects in the private sphere), and in its collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers (Israeli Guy Davidi was brought on as co-director and editor later in the process).

The Gatekeepers, on the other hand, is strictly political. Dror Moreh’s doc is of note largely for its worthy accomplishment in getting six of the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to agree to being interviewed. These interviews paint a picture of the security situation Israel faces and the decisions it has made in its conflict with Palestine, with some of the interviewees appearing remorseful for violent actions taken, one taking on the persona of intelligent philosopher, and another remaining, quite frankly, terrifying in his unshakable beliefs (Avraham Shalom). Moving through various Shin Bet operations, there’s no through-narrative, and while the interviewees are generally frank with their experiences, there’s no real accountability. It ultimately feels like a ploy for forgiveness unearned — and unasked for.

If anything can knock Rodriguez out of the race, it’s How to Survive a Plague, the story of how two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — through activism and innovation, turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. David France’s first feature film is a superlatively cultivated, mind-bogglingly thorough doc that seamlessly weaves together a multitude of period footage with contemporary interviews that include Mark Harrington and The Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer. Exhaustively chronicling a desperate struggle for effective drugs and treatment and political and social justice during one of the worst medical crises in U.S. history, the film feels overlong and, excluding Sugar Man, the least urgent of the nominees, but the severity of the AIDS crises has always been strangely downplayed, and here it’s finally given full, forthright attention.

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