The award for Best Documentary Feature is not always the most glamorous, the nominees aren’t usually well known (or known at all), but the category is the one of the most prestigious – owing to the filmmakers’ ability to create beautiful art using the real world as a canvas. The talent of bringing real people and real drama into a medium mostly dominated by fiction. It was first handed out in 1942 to four winners. By the next year, the category for documentary films had been split in two – marking a distinction between features and shorts.
Since then, the award has been handed out to iconic masterpieces like Helen Keller in Her Story, The Times of Harvey Milk, and One Day in September. Some are poignant stories of human agony or triumph. Some focus on historical figures and memorable moments in time. Some are zeitgeists that reveal our world as we live in it. Fortunately, the category has gained in popularity with the proliferation of technology beyond traditional distribution that brings these stories to a wider audience. As of last year, the award has gone from artistic and obscure to career-making – turning little known former Vice President Al Gore into a genuine celebrity. After 66 years, documentary films are finally getting the notice they deserve.
And the nominees are…
No End in Sight
Why is it nominated?: Four out of the five nominees deal directly with the Bush administrations’ policies. Three of those four deal, either directly or indirectly, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the heels of the President’s lame duck status, it’s become easier to make a movie criticizing the war now that there’s a larger audience receptive to the idea. And who best to bring a level-headed look at the failings of the months leading up to the war than a political scientist and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institute – one of the largest and most prestigious think tanks in the world? Although the subject matter is incendiary, it’s handled with gravity, featuring interviews from administration insiders with direct knowledge of why the road to war led the country into a quagmire.
Why it might win: This film is a heavy contender – with seven wins at different critic association and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. It garnered massive critical praise and ended up on no fewer than fifteen Top Ten Lists. At the box office, this incredibly limiteded-released film has earned $1.4 million.
Why it might not win: The field is packed this year. While Ferguson’s entry is thought-provoking and brilliant, it lacks the star power of last year’s An Inconvenient Truth and has to be considered against a field obsessed with President Bush, Iraq and the state of our country. Rising above the pack to get noticed might prove too difficult.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience
Why is it nominated?: Operation Homecoming provides a look into the War in Iraq through the eyes of a group that’s not always featured – the soldiers. Using letters and memoirs written by troops on the ground, this film presents successes and failures in their most raw form. Celebrities like Robert Duvall and Aaron Eckhart give voices to the letters laid out against animation, dramatic reenactments and haunting images from battle zones. It’s simple, honest, and incredibly moving.
Why it might win: This movie presents a different option amongst a swollen field. War documentaries tend to focus on the suits – like fellow nominee No End in Sight and 2003 winner The Fog of War. Passing over the VIPs, this film focuses on the men and women who actually live the war in the dirt, not while sitting behind a desk in Washington.
Why it might not win: It’s not as critically acclaimed as some of its competition – with some critics noting problems with the execution of blending the creative imagining of soldiers’ stories with the drier segments of war analysts.
Why is it nominated?: Relenting from his Fahrenheit 9/11 focus, documentary icon and gadfly Michael Moore turns his camera lens to the state of the health industry. It’s told with Moore’s signature brashness and flair for the theatrical (making headlines by taking critically ill patients to Cuba to seek treatment). It’s a hot topic, and the movie ignites the debate while being wildly entertaining.
Why it might win: Michael Moore has won before – he’s also brought the genre into a new popular realm of relevance. Without a doubt, this is the most well-known of the nominees, with massive appeal to to critics and the general public alike. Moore is a documentary-making star, and any entry he presents has a celebrity factor that the other nominees can’t contend with.
Why it might not win: Michael Moore has won before – and bringing him back up to the podium with free air time might not be the most desirable move. Popularity aside, Moore’s status as an all-star might help or hurt him. Plus, this entry is the most comical of the bunch, delivering more antics than straight-forward story-telling, and Academy members may see voting for this film as a drop in prestige for the category.
Taxi to the Dark Side
Why is it nominated?: Continuing the theme of governmental criticism, Taxi deals with the hottest topic of the day, the use of torture in modern American society. It’s not often that a documentary can be so perfectly on the cusp of an argument – oftentimes they create the arguments or bring the argument into focus once the final words have all been said. The story told here is a severe one – that of an taxi driver in Afghanistan that was tortured and killed in 2002. It’s a story we live our lives unaware of, which is precisely why Alex Gibney chose to bring it into the public consciousness. With breathtaking footage, this movie is striking, heartbreaking and stands front and center in the policy discourse.
Why it might win: It’s won already. It won Chicago International. It won Ojai. It was nominated by the WGA and the DGA as well as the Oscars. It was a standout at Tribeca. The only place it hasn’t won is at the box office, garnering only $32k gross and being sold to the Discovery channel only to be shelved permanently because of how controversial it is.
Why it might not win: It’s inaccessibility is a liability. So is its controversy. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine won because it was cathartic despite being inflammatory. Taxi to the Darkside doesn’t have that redeeming feature. It tells a dark, often one-sided story of a government, our government, that engages in an inhumane practice. Choosing this film would be a bold statement and requires courage that the voting members might not have.
Why is it nominated?: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix succeeded in telling an incredible story – blending perfect moments of desperate inhumanity and soaring joy. They follow the lives of three teenage members of the Acholi tribe in a war-torn Uganda refugee camp – but instead of telling a bleak story of war and devastation, Fine and Nix follow the teens as they prepare for a national music contest. The ultimate conclusion – and the documentary itself – is a metaphor for music as salvation coming out of the most tragic of life’s conditions.
Why it might win: In a field overflowing with entries on American policy, War Dance stands out. It’s also already accomplished, earning the Directing Aware at Sundance and the Audience Award at Aspen. If not of it’s own accord, it might win statistically if the votes get split between three Iraq War stories.
Who Will Win?
No End in Sight
It’s biggest hurdle is standing out in a crowd, and for the most part, it might have already done so. It is as beautifully striking and engaging as its competition and deals directly with an issue that’s been at the top of the list for voters in a very heated election cycle. It’s earned critical respect, buzz, awards, and success at the box office despite only appearing in two theaters.
It winning will also be Hollywood writing the final scene in Bush’s presidency, giving its highest honor to a film that chronicles the failings of what has become the President’s most defining blunder. If it had been made two years ago – or even last year – it wouldn’t have stood a chance, but riding a wave of public opinion and good timing will put the golden statue into Charles Ferguson’s hands for the same reason it found itself in Al Gore’s last year. On Sunday, another political scientist will be made a celebrity.
Who should win?
Taxi to the Dark Side
This movie is a knock out, but probably too much for the Academy to handle. It’s surprising that it’s made it this far in the nomination process. Without pretending to be objective about the situation, it takes on the unpleasant task of looking deep within to the soul of the country – an introspective look for its audiences – and forces the viewer to come to terms with the reality that our elected officials, people we voted for en masse, have engaged in unthinkable cruelties in the name of keeping us safe. Watching this movie takes away a certain innocence from the audience, and it’s done artistically at every turn. At it’s least, it’s thought-provoking and at its best, it’s stomach turning with ethos. But in a world where our Attorney General can’t say whether or not torture is illegal, where it’s called advanced-interrogation by the double-plus-good government, how can the Academy stick its neck out by proclaiming its own government the villain?
Who was overlooked?
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and King Corn
Two kings that won’t reign at the awards ceremony. Having the fate of a protracted war, the failings of a health system, the glimmer of hope in a ravaged nation and the issue of military criminality to deal with, the Academy seemed not to have time for these two light-hearted pieces. One deals with a video game savant and the other, two men’s quest to understand modern agribusiness. Both are funny, outstanding pieces of documentary film making, and both are well known to savvier movie crowds. Apparently, that’s not enough for the Hollywood elite of the Academy.