I keep forgetting there are ten nominees for Best Picture this year. And when I try to name them all, a few titles are consistently lost in the bunch. Are District 9 and Up really in contention? And A Serious Man, too? Because it sure doesn't feel like it. Seems more like a five-film race, as always.
Likewise, it's hard to think of there being five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature when the race is clearly focused on only two films, The Cove and Food, Inc. These are obviously the popular favorites because they are available on DVD. Could you even name the other nominees without looking them up?
The sad thing is, looking up the other three films might not even help you out. Two nominees, Which Way Home and The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, don't even have Wikipedia entries. That's a bad sign for the public awareness of and interest in your project.
Which Way Home was likely seen by a significant audience when it aired on HBO last August, while Most Dangerous Man opened in a number of U.S. cities this past weekend (First Run Features expands its scope even further this Friday). Where is the support and fanbase for these nominees?
It should be enough that the Academy has recognized these films, as well as Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (which does have a Wikipedia page), and surely its members aren't only concerned with which documentaries are more popular in the mainstream. If that were the case, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, It Might Get Loud and Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story might have been at least shortlisted, if not also nominated.
What kind of threat do these three other nominees pose, though, for the two apparent frontrunners? We have to attempt to figure out what kinds of documentaries the Academy does concern itself with.
In the past, it was always half-joked that when available, the Holocaust doc will win. But this hasn't really been the case in at least ten years. Next, there's the cause rule, which says the Academy will go with whatever film presents a hot issue its members currently care about. Like Global Warming.
And tightrope walking? Last year's win for Man on Wire, as well as prior successes for March of the Penguins, Taxi to the Dark Side and Murder on a Sunday Morning show us that Academy voters are primarily interested in non-fiction films with a strong narrative.
Personally, I hope that means The Cove wins. And given its rising mainstream approval and the fact that it does indeed promote a worthy cause, there's a good chance that it will be the victor. Like those four winners I mention, The Cove is a film that mostly works because of how it tells a story rather than what that ("important" or not) story is.
Which Way Home, which follows a bunch of children on their hopeful trek from Mexico to the United States, may be the next best nominee as far as narratives go. Unlike The Cove and its precursors, however, it doesn't really seem to play with genre in the same way (admittedly, I haven't seen it). There's no sense of an espionage or heist thriller or a whodunit, as far as I can tell. Yet, as Erik noted in his review of the film, which likens the doc to the recent Mexican fiction film Sin Nombre, Which Way Home is an entertaining and educational story without an overbearing cause agenda.
Also telling a strong narrative is Most Dangerous Man (which I have seen), though it's portrayal of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg is a lot more on the educational side than the entertaining. And in a way, there's a real sense of we've been there before in terms of its subject matter. The gist of Ellsberg's story is basically Fog of War light, and this new documentary is nowhere near as strong as Errol Morris' Oscar-winning interview piece on Robert McNamara.
Still, I am eager to discuss -- with anyone who manages to see it -- the film's bizarre and inconsistent employment of multiple and random documentary elements/tools, including unnecessary reenactments, both live-action and animated, and sudden use of expository titles. I also must note that while watching Most Dangerous Man, I felt I'd enjoy Ellsberg's story more as a dramatic feature, despite my previous column devoted to why documentaries shouldn't be remade as such. Fortunately (for me), there was in fact a TV movie made a few years back starring James Spader as Ellsberg.
I've shared my negative feelings before on why Food, Inc. isn't my cup of tea, and part of that has to do with how it isn't really a cinematic narrative. Unfortunately (for me anyway), it does discuss a topic that affects a lot more Academy voters than does dolphin slaughter. And five years after my least favorite documentary of all time won the Oscar, I wouldn't be surprised if another film I hate is honored.
Finally, there's Burma VJ, which I also sadly admit I have not yet seen. But as far as I am intrigued about how documentary film may serve journalism more (or rather) than function as mere storytelling, this is the nominee I most wish I (and others) had access to. The film details the oppressive Burmese regime and more specifically a 2007 rebellion of Buddhist monks, an event that would otherwise have gone unreported without this video document compiling footage from tons of shaky cameras in the hands of guerilla-style journalists. For my primary interest in non-fiction cinema, I want to see Burma VJ foremost as a work of historical documentary, but I'm also fascinated by the way in and purpose for which it was made.
Because of the Oscar nomination, I'm sure that many others have heard about the film that wouldn't have otherwise, and like me a lot of them are hoping to see Burma VJ. So where is the theatrical re-release or at least an immediate release of the DVD? You can actually buy a region 2 disc from Amazon UK, but that doesn't help us in the States, where it won't be out on DVD until late May. Hopefully Oscar viewers won't have forgotten about the film by that time, whether it wins the award or not.
As for Which Way Home, it seems like it'd make sense for HBO to be airing the documentary in the months leading up to the Academy Awards so the film could garner fans who might rally around its contention for the award. Or, again, why not release a timely DVD? Sadly, there's nothing to be learned about the future availability from the film's website, which doesn't even acknowledge that the film received an Oscar nomination.
At least for Most Dangerous Man, I can link you to a list of current and upcoming theatrical bookings throughout the U.S. and Canada, many of which occur after the Academy Awards (no DVD release date set, though).
Does the Oscar recognition at least have you interested in these five documentaries? Would you prefer to be able to see all these films before the telecast? Which do you look forward to seeing most, and/or which do you hope will win?