Five Independent, Political Documentaries That Should Have Won An Oscar

By @katierucke |
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    This Oct. 11, 1988 publicity photo released by Sundance Selects shows Peter Staley in a scene from director, David Franceís documentary film, "How to Survive a Plague," a Sundance Selects release. Staley triumphantly finishes hanging a banner over the entrance to the FDA main headquarters, during an HIV AIDS civil disobedience demonstration, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Sundance Selects, Rick Reinhard)

    This Oct. 11, 1988 publicity photo released by Sundance Selects shows Peter Staley in a scene from director, David Franceís documentary film, “How to Survive a Plague,” a Sundance Selects release. Staley triumphantly finishes hanging a banner over the entrance to the FDA main headquarters, during an HIV AIDS civil disobedience demonstration, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Sundance Selects, Rick Reinhard)


    (MintPress) – As Hollywood’s finest strutted down the red carpet Sunday night for the 85th Academy Awards — decked out in high-end fashion gowns and tuxes, topped off with designer jewels — many Americans took joy in thinking this would be one night where politics aside, we could all come together and celebrate the films created over the last year.

    But in reality, politics were a large part of the night, as several nominated films including the Oscar-winner for Best Film, “Argo,” had a political theme with its depiction of the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days, but a handful of embassy staff were taken in and sheltered by the Canadian ambassador. The hostages escaped by using a fake movie as a cover story.

    The film is not allowed in Iran as some Iranians have called the movie an “advertisement for the CIA” and Iran’s culture minister cited the movie as an example of how Hollywood has “distorted history.”

    Other well-known political Oscar contenders included “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln,” and though it may be a stretch, even “Les Miserables” had hints of political commentary with a story centered on the French Revolution and police brutality.

    Political-speak wasn’t limited to just the films though as even the presenters got in on the action. Oscar host Seth McFarlane, voice of the teddy bear character “Ted” from the film of the same title, made some arguably lowbrow comments while presenting an award for sound mixing with actor Mark Wahlberg. Ted told Wahlberg he was born Theodore Shapiro and he “would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever.”

    Though not all political commentary was as blunt as Ted’s statement, politics seemed to be a large theme in Oscar-nominated films this year. Though politics were not limited to just Hollywood blockbusters, which garnered the most attention at the awards, there were five politically-motivated independent films that earned a well-deserved nod from the Academy.

    Though none of the following five films went on to take home a golden statue of their own, the fact that they were nominated is hopefully the first step in the American public acknowledging and understanding some of the political issues the films touch on including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, AIDS, rape and sexual abuse in the military, and poverty.

    Since these documentaries were not made, for the most part, by large Hollywood studios, their honesty and bravery should be applauded and recognized by Americans, just as much as the Hollywood big hitters.

     

    5 Broken Cameras

    Nominated for: Best Documentary Feature

    Accidentally filmed by a Palestinian farmer who was trying to document his son’s childhood, “5 Broken Cameras” is a film about the growth of the Palestinian resistance movement to the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in. Co-directed by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli, the film spotlights the nonviolent tactics used by Bil’in residents as they, along with activists, including Israelis, protested the wall’s construction and confronted Israeli soldiers.

    Davidi said he wasn’t disappointed his film lost, adding he and Burnat “went through a long and exhausting process and it took its toll … On the personal level, I feel it is good now to take a break.”

    That didn’t stop Davidi and Burnat from tweeting to supporters though: “Although we did not win the Oscar, we have shown the Palestinian nonviolent struggle for freedom to the world. This is most important!” Burnat also tweeted late Sunday night to the residents of Bil’in saying, “The world knows our voice and our struggle now.”

     

    The Gatekeepers

    Nominated for: Best Documentary Feature

    Directed by Dror Moreh, “The Gatekeepers” tells the experiences of six former heads of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet. In the film, the men detail the methods they used against Palestinian militants and civilians, including targeted killings, torture, recruiting informants, and the suppression of mass protests during two intifadas. While the former heads of the Shin Bet criticize Israel’s occupation of occupied territories, they warn that successive Israeli governments have endangered the country’s future by refusing to make peace with the Palestinians.

    Moreh told reporters after the ceremony that he had prepared a speech, just in case the movie would win, and in his speech he intended to dedicate the award to the memory of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered when trying to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

    “He lost his life because he dared to dream of peace,” Moreh said, “and that is why I wanted to dedicate the prize to him.” The Israeli director added that recent events in the occupied territories, were protests have been on the rise following the death of a Palestinian detainee in an Israeli prison, demonstrated the dangers his film points out.

    “It looks as if we might be on the verge of a third intifada and that shows us again that the conflict is alive and kicking even if people try to ignore it,” he said.

     

    How to Survive a Plague

    Nominated for: Best Documentary Feature

    Chronicling the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s, David France’s film tells the story of how AIDS activism changed the country.

    Peter Staley, an HIV/AIDS activist who was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-’80s, who is featured in the film says he is alive because of the activism movement the film focuses on.

    “This was a major victory this movie tells about getting these therapies. But that was only the beginning of the battle. Now we have these treatments that can keep people alive, and there are still two to three million dying every year. There are more dying now than when we actually got the therapies to save people. So it’s a huge failure of leadership internationally. And it shows a failure of our own health care system.”

    Though France walked away without an Oscar he says his work is far from over as he shared his vision to create more films educating viewers about the “unpleasant history of how some dedicated individuals shaped a government’s response to a national health crisis.”

     

    The Invisible War

    Nominated for: Best Documentary Feature

    When the number of reported violent sex crimes jumped 30 percent in 2011, with active-duty female soldiers accounting for more than half of the victims, Kirby Dick, decided to make a film about the rape epidemic of soldiers within the U.S. military.

    “Not only was I astounded by the numbers, but when I started talking to the women and men who had experienced this, I was just so devastated by their stories,” he said. “These are women and men who are very idealistic. They joined the military because they wanted to serve their country. They were incredible soldiers. And then, when they were assaulted, they had the courage to come forward, even though many people advised them not to.”

     

    Redemption

    Nominated for: Best Documentary Short

    Surviving by collecting bottles and cans from curbs, garbage cans and apartment complexes, “Redemption” highlights a group of impoverished New Yorkers, “canners,” who have largely been forgotten after they lost their jobs and now depend on society to live.

    Though some of the “canners” in the film are homeless people, many are working poor, who collect cans to make ends meet.

    John Alpert, one of the film’s directors said “everywhere you look in New York City now you see people going through the garbage,” but he was inspired to make the film after Sheila Nevins, the head of documentaries at HBO, said she came out of her apartment and saw someone going through her garbage and another person going through garbage across the street. “She asked, ‘Who are the these people?’ When she asked that question to [co-director] Matt [O’Neill] and I, we were on the streets the next day.”

     

    Hollywood’s Political History

    Whether or not a film is intentionally political or not is subjective — as is whether or not Hollywood leans left or right. But for decades, Hollywood has been accused of political work.

    At the 1973 Academy Awards, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for best actor for his work in “The Godfather.” Instead of collecting his award himself, Brando had American Indian civil rights activist and aspiring actress Sacheen Littlefeather to represent him and reject the Oscar in protest of the treatment of American Indians by Hollywood.

    In the late 1940s, many in Hollywood were accused of being communist sympathizers and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which interrogated many in Hollywood suspected of disloyal and subversive acts, and connections to the Communist party.

    Hollywood’s ties to the Communist party is thought to be what led to the eventual formation of the Screen Writers Guild, which began as a union for screenwriters.

    “Studios started firing people suspected of being in the party,” said Paul Buhle, author of “Radical Hollywood” and “Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist.”

    “Being close to the party carried this enormous prestige, and then suddenly you had people being blacklisted and not being allowed to work.”

    Buhle added that the Blacklist Era continued until around 1970 and during this time Hollywood produced more “lavish costume dramas than hitting social criticisms.” But that all changed when the U.S. went to war in Vietnam.

    “The beginning of a 1970s renaissance in American cinema and the rise of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg,” Buhle said. “With it came newfound political clout, the kind that brings us together to watch a movie in a theater and divides us come election time.”


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