THE BLOG
02/21/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Academy Awards 2013: Documentary Features

The favorite in this category is Searching for Sugar Man, simply because it is such a good story. However, I hope that more people will get to see some of the other nominees, in particular 5 Broken Cameras.

Searching for Sugar Man (Sweden/United Kingdom) is the only one of the five documentary feature nominees that is uplifting and doesn't deal with an important social or political issue that needs correcting. And yet its does start with such a struggle...the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. For white South Africans who opposed the racist policies of their government in the 1970s, part of the soundtrack to their lives was the album "Cold Fact" featuring a mysterious American singer named Rodriguez. It sold more copies in South Africa than the Beatles' "Abbey Road." Apartheid finally ended in 1994. Meanwhile, rumors spread that Rodriguez had committed suicide, perhaps even by setting himself on fire onstage. In 1996, Rodriguez fan Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom began the hunt to find out how Rodriguez really died.

Thousands of miles away, in Detroit, Rodriguez's albums were well-reviewed and Rodriguez was pitched -- with good reason -- as a Mexican-American Bob Dylan. Perhaps if Rodriguez had lived in California or Arizona he might have built a significant following. However the market for politically conscious music by a Latino singer-songwriter in Detroit was limited, and Rodriguez's albums did not sell. He returned to a normal life as a construction worker, completely oblivious to his hero status in South Africa. What follows in director Malik Bendjelloul's documentary, which he began working on in 2006, is really an irresistible story. Suffice it say that, thanks to a new tool known as the Internet, Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom discovered that Rodriguez -- Sixto Rodriguez -- was actually still alive and, as a bonus, was a nice guy, a mensch, and even better, had retained his singing abilities.

For anyone who might find Rodriguez's story too good to be true, keep in mind the odyssey of the blues singer Mississippi John Hurt. Born in 1893, Hurt lived in the tiny community of Avalon, Mississippi, playing guitar and singing at local dances. When he was 35 years old, he attracted the attention of a record company that brought him to Memphis and New York to record a few 45s. None of them sold well, so he returned to Avalon and the local dances. Thirty-five years later, two musicologists, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, came across one of Hurt's 1928 recordings and were so moved that they tracked him down in Avalon. At 70, Hurt still had the same clear voice and smooth guitar skills he had had as a younger man. They taped him singing and playing, and Hurt quickly became nationally appreciated. He spent the remaining three years of his life performing at music festivals, on college campuses and even on television. Rodriguez's 20-25 years of obscurity seem like a brief interlude in comparison with those of John Hurt.

The Gatekeepers (Israel) examines Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory through interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret security agency responsible, among other things, for assassinations and interrogations. The six express varying degrees of regret about what they have done and about their government's policy towards the Palestinians. With policy and strategy made by politicians, they are left to concentrate on "tactics." Most of them have publicly urged their government to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

5 Broken Cameras (Palestine/Israel) is another film that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but from the other side. Emad Burnat bought a video camera in celebration of the birth of his son, Gibreel, in 2005 and was the only person in his West Bank village of Bil'in to own a video camera. What differentiates 5 Broken Cameras from a typical home movie is that Bil'in happens to be right on the border of Israel. The villagers watch with dismay as Israeli soldiers erect a fence separating them from their olive groves, burn the trees and pave the way for the construction of buildings for Jewish settlers. Even when an Israeli court rules in favor of the Palestinians, they still don't get their land back and the settlers don't go away. After five years of filming his village's increasingly tense struggle against the Israelis, Burnat teamed with a Jewish filmmaker, Guy Davidi, to edit the footage into 5 Broken Cameras. It is so rare in the United States to see Palestinians portrayed as regular human beings that the home movie quality of the film is refreshing. Throughout the film we see Israeli Jews who support the Bil'an villagers, but we also see young Israeli soldiers bullying the villagers and even shooting at them. I can't help but feel that many of these soldiers, like the Shin Bet leaders in The Gatekeepers, will someday come to regret their actions.

How to Survive a Plague (USA) Using extensive, hard-to-find archival footage,How to Survive a Plague chronicles the largely unknown struggle of New York gay activists, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, to pressure the government and pharmaceutical companies to research the deadly disease and accelerate experiments with various drugs and drug combinations in order to find a cure. As deaths mount and friends and colleagues increasingly succumb, many of the activists become more desperate and more militant, while others concentrate on the science of countering AIDS. Finally, in 1996, a drug cocktail breakthrough occurs and, although not a cure, the lives of HIV-positive patients begin to extend.

The Invisible War (USA) Highlighting numerous case studies in painful detail, The Invisible War deals with the practically taboo subject of rape in the U.S. military. The sheer number of victims profiled or mentioned in this film is devastating. Rape is an awful crime to begin with, but when the victims are attacked while serving their country, it is even more of an outrage. And then, when they try to report the rape, the victims are met with an institutional old boys' network that often blames the victim and gives the rapist a promotion. In some cases the victims don't even bother to report being raped because one of the people who reviews such complaints is the rapist himself. In fact, according to Pentagon figures, more than 22,000 rapes occurred in the military in 2011 alone, yet only 3,000 were officially reported and even fewer were actually prosecuted.

Reportedly, after viewing The Invisible War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took away review of rape accusation cases from unit commanders and moved them up the chain of command. A nice gesture, but really the investigations should taken away from the military chain of command entirely. After all, rape is not an occupational hazard, but a crime, and as such it should be dealt with not by a review board, but by a court of law.

Co-director (with Amy Ziering) Kirby Dick earned his first Academy Award documentary nomination eight years ago for Twist of Fate, the portrayal of the lingering effects of childhood sexual abuse by a Catholic priest on a firefighter in Toledo, Ohio.

I cannot leave the subject of this year's feature documentaries without calling attention to two non-nominees, The Imposter and Chasing Ice.

The Imposter (United Kingdom) Every person I have spoken with who has seen The Imposter wanted to immediately discuss it, interpret it and exchange opinions about it. On June 13, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay of San Antonio, Texas, disappeared the day before he was scheduled to appear at a hearing for sentencing as a result of an arrest for breaking into a convenience store. More than three years later, his family received a call that he had been found in Spain after having been kidnapped and subjected to sexual abuse. His step-sister flew to Spain and brought him back to San Antonio, where he was welcomed home by his mother and older brother.

However, there was a problem: he didn't really look like Nicholas. In fact, his eyes were a different color and he spoke with a French accent. Although the family didn't seem to care, others became suspicious, and the FBI was brought in to investigate. Sure enough, "Nicholas" turned out to be a serial imposter named Frédéric Bourdin, who was promptly arrested. The story gained national attention. I don't think I was alone in wondering, at the time, what was wrong with this family that could fall for such an obvious hoaxster. Was their need to believe that Nicolas was alive so great that they accepted Bourdin as Nicolas? However, as Bart Layton, the director of The Imposter makes clear, there is another possible explanation for their behavior, one that is far more sinister.

Layton uses a format of which I am not a fan...blending interviews with the real people involved in the case with fictional dramatizations of key scenes using professional actors. This disrupts the flow and the authenticity of the film, however the interviews with Bourdin and the family members are compelling, to say the least.

Chasing Ice (USA) is a study in extreme photography. James Balog is a nature-oriented photojournalist who has documented endangered species and disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP explosion and oil spill. Concerned about the alarming effects of climate change, Balog decided to call attention to the rapid melting of glaciers by using time-lapse photography to show the glaciers' retreat in a way that computer modeling and talking heads cannot do. He and his staff created equipment that could survive unusually harsh weather condition and then installed them in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. This was easier said than done. Technical difficulties set back the project for several months, but eventually they pulled it off. The landscapes are awesome in the traditional sense of the word: inspiring awe. However, the time-lapse sequences that come at the end are distressing and should be shown to climate change deniers.

Chasing Ice may not have been nominated in the feature documentary category, but it did pick up one nomination -- for Best Song, "Before My Time" as performed by Scarlet Johansson and Joshua Bell.

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