The five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature this year show that the power of film can make a difference. One has changed policy at the Pentagon, another could change policy for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and yet another has blown up the career of a singer-songwriter nearly 40 years after his last album was released to little notice. The other two docs offer remarkably inspiring chronicles of positive activism.
Any of these films might be called important, necessary, compelling, astonishing and deserving of the Academy Award. However, while "Searching for Sugar Man" is the expectant frontrunner for the honor, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Oscar went to "The Invisible War," "The Gatekeepers," "How to Survive a Plague" or "5 Broken Cameras."
Check out the guide on all these nominees below to understand why they’re all worthy, as well as where you can see them for yourself.
'5 Broken Cameras'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> Co-director Emad Burnat bought his first home movie camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son. He wound up also recording his Palestinian village’s non-violent resistance to an encroaching Israeli settlement, which began construction about the same time. Over the next four years he went through four more cameras, as each was shot or smashed by soldiers during the continuing protests. <strong>Why You Should See It:</strong> In a way you’re witnessing someone’s home movies turn into a powerful piece of activist journalism, but it’s also a film about how the resistance is just as much a part of Burnat’s life as anything else he recorded. Friends’ arrests and childrens’ birthdays are side by side, one shot in his backyard and the other shot inside his home. Sure, part of his documenting the resistance is for the activism, but there’s a greater power in the realization that he can’t really make honest home movies without that material anyway. It’s a movie about his home and the threat to it. <strong>It’s Kind of Like:</strong> The backyard activist journalism of “Gasland” meets the nonviolent resistance movement seen in the 2010 Oscar nominee “Burma VJ” and the very similar plot of the 2008 Palestinian/Israeli drama “Lemon Tree.” <strong>How You Can See It:</strong> “5 Broken Cameras” is available on DVD and iTunes and streaming on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> An insider’s account of the history of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service (as in anti-terrorism intelligence), since 1967, through interviews with the six living former heads of the organization. <strong>Why You Should See It:</strong> It’s a very important admission of where Israel has done wrong in its occupation of Palestinian territories for the last 40 years from some of the men responsible, and it’s a powerful criticism of the current administration’s policy and continued wrongdoing. But don’t go in with an ignorance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the film doesn’t give too much laymen’s exposition and context. It’s a smart, talky film, and quite riveting at times if you give it your undivided attention. <strong>It’s Kind of Like:</strong> Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War” crossed with the Nazi collaborator half of Marcel Ophuls’ classic documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity.” <strong>How You Can See It:</strong> “The Gatekeepers” opened last Friday in limited release and will be expanding to other major cities over the next couple months.
'How to Survive a Plague'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> In short it’s about AIDS activism that led to effective drugs and treatment in the mid-1990s. Through extensive archival video records of awareness and advocacy movements, particularly involving the organizations ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), director David France chronicles years of devastation followed by a dawning of hope for those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. <strong>Why You Should See It:</strong> The footage France has found and edited together into an ultimately crowd-pleasing drama is one thing. Another is the inspiration and positivity that comes out of the story, which is extremely important to anyone fighting for a cause today. You will cry at the sad times and cry again at the happy times, and in the end you’ll have witnessed a magnificent history about magnificent crusaders making a monumental difference. <strong>It’s Kind of Like:</strong> The San Francisco AIDS crisis documentary “We Were Here” crossed with other powerful Oscar-nominated activism docs such as “Berkeley in the Sixties” and “The Weather Underground,” albeit without any of the violent militancy stuff. <strong>How You Can See It:</strong> “How to Survive a Plague” is available from iTunes and streaming on Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. It is also still playing in a limited amount of theaters around the U.S.
'The Invisible War'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> Exposes the horribly widespread problem of rape and sexual assault within the United States Armed Forces. Former Oscar nominee Kirby Dick (“Twist of Faith”) interviews veterans who are survivors of sex crimes not only about the incidents but the subsequent injustices experienced within the systems of military hierarchy and bureaucracy. <strong>Why You Should See It:</strong> While some documentaries show a history of change and others examine causes that need to succeed, this one has itself already been a tool for progress. Following screenings at the Pentagon, the military has begun improving procedures for handling sex crime cases. Of course, this is only the first step. One thing the film shows is that there’s a cultural issue at hand and the Pentagon needs to develop methods to prevent such cases in the first place. As for what’s on the screen, there are obviously some upsetting accounts told on camera and you likely will get a lump in your throat during the film. But that lump will be there to remind you of the importance of the changes this documentary calls for. <strong>What It’s Like:</strong> Somewhat akin to the friendly fire issue in “The Tillman Story” and rape victim testimonials of the Oscar-shortlisted “Mea Maxima Culpa.” <strong>How You Can See It:</strong> “The Invisible War” is now available on DVD and iTunes and streaming on Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other services.
'Searching For Sugar Man'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> 1970s singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who never was a success in the U.S. but somehow became an enormous hit in South Africa. Director Malik Bendjelloul follows the story of the artist, while also telling the tale of one Cape Town journalist’s own investigation to find out what happened to the subject. <strong>Why You Should See It:</strong> The story of Rodriguez is a real-life fairy tale, and this movie has received nothing but standing ovations and piles of audience awards since opening Sundance last year. The narrative structure is more captivating than most music documentaries, and the music is pretty good, too. As a subject, there are few people as humble and simplistically likeable as Rodriguez, and his life is unlike any that you can think of. <strong>What It’s Like:</strong> “Cinderella” crossed with the documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and the ‘70s rock musical “Velvet Goldmine.” <strong>How You Can See It:</strong> “Searching for Sugar Man” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes and On Demand as well as streaming on Amazon, YouTube and other services.