Non-fiction features, however entertaining, are traditionally not high on viewers' radar, certainly not the most controversially debated at Oscar time as say "Avatar" vs. "The Hurt Locker," even though what makes them strong may be controversial. This year "Food, Inc." and "The Cove," both Academy Award nominated, drove a heated debate on the ethics of what we eat. As one observer put it, sex used to fuel that kind of moral fervor. Today it is food.
But are we still talking about movies? Or good movie-making? So often documentaries are considered for the issues they raise, even by Oscar committees, rather than their art.
This year for non-fiction film honors, these fine works are joined by "Which Way Home," a heart-wrenching view of Latin American boys hopping freight trains through Mexico to make it to the United States, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," on a politically volatile piece of US history, and "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country," a Danish film by Anders Ostergaard about the 2007 uprising in Myanmar.
What makes this last unusual in a field that can be a frontier for innovation is that it is shot through the cameras of the independent journalist group, Democratic Voice of Burma. In fact, the very act of documenting the oppression of citizens and Buddhist monks protesting the country's oppressive regime that had held them hostage for 40 years, suppressing foreign news crews and even the internet, was a subversive act. The act of smuggling the devastating footage of 30 anonymous and underground video journalists risked torture and life imprisonment. The art of putting all this material together involved not only assembling the footage, but showing how the footage was acquired.
An audience including documentarians Albert Maysles and Robert Richter, and Julie Taymor, Jane Alexander, and Gay Talese joined director Anders Osteergaard for a special screening hosted by HBO Documentary Films and Oscilloscope at MoMA recently. At dinner at Osteria del Circo, many marveled at the ingenuity of the filmmaking. When asked whether he thought he would win the Oscar, Anders Ostergaard smiled and said, "Dead monks vs. dead dolphins," referring to the subject of The Cove. "No, I don't think so."