2013 Oscar Checklist – Documentary Feature


Here are reviews of all 5 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary.

The Invisible War


Director Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) continues to pick rich subject matter to document only to give it a cursory treatment in The Invisible War. The film is about the rampant problem of rape in the military and the military’s gross mishandling of the crisis. A number of victims bravely sit in front of the camera and retell their horrifying ordeal. There’s the shock that it happens, the shock that nothing is done and no one is punished, and the shock at just how widespread it goes. It’s tragic, but the film could have done a better job of covering the topic.

There are many women, and a few men, interviewed, but the film spends a lot of time with one particular victim. Her story is sad and interesting, but no more so than the others. The film plays better when we hear many voices and the decision to spend so much time with just one isn’t as dramatic. The structure of the piece is also wonky. It jumps around different angles of the story with no rhyme or reason. One minute the topic is rape education, and then suddenly it’s lingering health issues, then something else entirely. It’s fine to cover as much of the issue as possible, but some organization is needed. By all means shine a light, but shine it clear so every detail comes across.

After awhile the movie begins spinning its wheels. It doesn’t take long to realize military rape is a terrible problem, but the film feels it needs to beat you over the head with this point. I’m not being insensitive, but I get it. Rape is bad, now show me something else or give me a little more insight or drama. Still, the film means well and has spurred real change, so kudos for that.


How to Survive a Plague


This is easily the best documentary out of the nominees. Using mostly video footage from the time with a limited amount of new interviews, the movie recounts the struggles of ACT UP and TAG during the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s about activism in action. At the time people weren’t just afraid of the disease, but of homosexuals. The documentary is about how a few smart and dedicated people fought for their lives and won because no one else would. It’s almost strange to remember that not too long ago AIDS was wiping people out. It’s still an issue today, but 30 years ago things were much more dire. The film is a raw document of a turbulent time in recent history, but has merit far beyond that.

The film is a history and science lesson, an emotional drama, a political thriller, a cultural examination, an intimate diary, and a protest piece all in one. There’s immediacy to the film that comes not just from the critical issue, but from the brilliant way all this footage has been culled and cut together. Knowing the points of the story wouldn’t be enough. It may be interesting to hear how this group educated themselves on biology and pharmaceuticals, or hear about the strife happening within the group, but the film puts you there. It makes you comprehend what they were up against.

Told chronologically, the film has a wallop waiting for you at the end. True to the title, these fighters found a way. It’s hard to describe the feeling when you see the survivors at the end. Some were so sick and so convinced they would die, and yet here they are. But of course, not everyone made it, and the film is a bittersweet ode to their efforts. It’s a wonderful and important testament that reminds us what the best of human fortitude can accomplish.


The Gatekeepers


The movie begins with a little background on Israel and the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. It’s the most welcome part of the movie because I am shamefully undereducated when it comes to Israel and their many conflicts. After the intro, you’re on your own. Which is not to say you’ll be lost if you don’t know the history, but I’m sure it would help. The movie is really about moral conundrums and the grey area between right and wrong. All 6 former heads of the Shin Bet recount their stories, their successes, their failures, and what went into their decision making.

A lot of their tales involve situations where a quick decision had to be made. The hasty choice could cost innocent life but could take out a high value target. Their sober responses may startle, but they all have their own internal logic for these situations. The interviews are amazing gets for the filmmakers. All 6 former heads of the Shin Bet have never been on record like this before. However, there are some clunky recreations and animations that overdramatize the anecdotes. These men talking should be interesting enough without these cut scenes. A few of the interviewees are captivating speakers. One talks almost gleefully about life and death because he sees the absurdity of it all. Another is direct and forceful like he is on trial. Others aren’t quite as riveting.

For this dunce, I wished the film stuck with a chronological structure. Instead they cut between all 6 and jump around in time. It made it difficult to keep up. I know these men going on record is a big deal. They point out the madness and flaws with Israel’s policies, but I don’t think the film is a great documentary. It’s not structured very well and some parts aren’t that absorbing. They’re impressive interviews, but it’s an okay movie. It would have been a better 60 minutes special.


5 Broken Cameras


As a counterpoint to The Gatekeepers, this film is very thought-provoking. Instead of a political overview, it offers up a personal perspective. Emad Burnat lives in a small village in The West Bank, right up against the encroaching Israeli border. He begins filming the local protests and it becomes a compulsion for him. He feels the camera shields him. It’s also his way of making sense of the situation, of coping with the hardships.

As the title implies, his cameras keep breaking. There’s some suspense to the film as each escalating incident could bring about the next equipment destruction. More than one camera is felled by bullet fire, and yet, he keeps getting new cameras and keeps on filming. The film spans several years, as the situation is ongoing. The Israelis build on land that isn’t theirs and the Palestinians mount bigger protests. The villagers aren’t all that politically motivated. They’re defending their way of life and their pride.

Even after two documentaries on the matter, I still don’t fully comprehend the politics, but 5 Broken Cameras does capture the human element with visceral intensity. Like Gatekeepers, it is also a more impressive technical achievement than a great film. The first person narrative precludes any deeper examination and sometimes what Emad captures isn’t really exciting or relevant. It’s still a vivid portrait, and a pivotal view of the hostility.


Searching For Sugar Man


It’s an interesting thing when a country embraces an artist when no one else has. For whatever reason, cultural or otherwise, some music and some movies play better in other places. Searching For Sugar Man is about one of these artists. After recording two albums that were highly regarded but sold poorly in the U.S., Sixto Rodriguez (or Rodriguez) disappeared. The film traces the efforts of a few South African super fans as they try to find out what happened to one of their favorite musicians.

There are two parts to the movie that work very well. On one hand you have this mystery and this search. This part also goes into the music and how it gained such popularity in the time of Apartheid. It’s all very engaging and the music isn’t half bad either. Then you have the second part where the riddle is solved. I know some feel that the well known spoilers diminish this part of the movie, but I don’t agree. Rodriguez is an intriguing character as a legend, but as a man he’s equally compelling. I’m not sure the movie ever gets to the truth about the man. He has an unbelievable generosity and modesty in the face of insane good luck, but a mystique is maintained.

There are some bits of animation and random segues that don’t necessarily detract form the film but they add nothing. There’s also a sense that a bigger deal is being made of something that perhaps is not. Even if this is the case, I don’t think this type of story can ever happen again in the modern age. It’s not an issue film, but the story is inspirational and clear in its vision. 



One response to “2013 Oscar Checklist – Documentary Feature

  1. Pingback: 2013 Oscar Checklist – The Master List | Shooting the Script

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