Last season, the emperor penguin shuffled across pristine ice fields and into Oscar history to win the doc award. Only one year later, those same ice packs are crumbling into the sea, as documented by “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film that does for Al Gore and the specter of global warming what “Penguins” did for feel-good nature programming. Despite the Arctic playground of last year’s Oscar-winning birds, filmmakers this year are showing us a far chillier world.
“I think with the war and all the problems with Iran and North Korea, the state of the world is very much on people’s minds this year,” says Barbara Kopple, co-director of Dixie Chicks docu “Shut Up & Sing.” “In fact, this year they’re almost all provocative, highly political documentaries.”
This year’s Oscar front-runners are darker, more controversial and far closer in tone to such previous winners as “Hotel Terminus” (1988) and “Bowling for Columbine” (2002).
“People are going to documentaries because they’re dissatisfied with the news they’re getting from television and newspapers,” asserts David Guggenheim, director of “An Inconvenient Truth.” “That’s one reason I wanted to put ‘Truth’ in the title. The film has a very powerful, immediate message, and I think it’s successful because Al Gore is the first person to really articulate the problem in a convincing way, and it’s a problem that’s affecting everyone on this planet.”
Guggenheim also credits the film’s success to its personal, rather than political, tone. It’s a lesson he learned from his father, Charles Guggenheim, who won no fewer than four doc Oscars. “All great films are personal, and that’s true whether your film is about global warming or the Iraq war,” Guggenheim says.
Kopple’s film takes a very personal look at the war in Iraq. After criticizing President Bush, the Dixie Chicks came under an avalanche of criticism from the right. “They were shocked and stunned by the harsh backlash,” Kopple says, “but it also made them stronger through a very tough time. And even though they became the target of this campaign to silence them, and their songs were boycotted, it didn’t work.”
Deborah Scranton’s directorial debut, “The War Tapes,” offers a more firsthand look at the war: It’s the first to be filmed by the soldiers themselves. Declining an offer from the New Hampshire National Guard to embed herself as a filmmaker in Iraq, Scranton instead gave cameras to a handful of soldiers and trained them as cinematographers, “using cameras on their Humvee gun turrets, inside dashboards and even on their body armor and helmets.”
In constant contact via email and instant messaging, Scranton carefully directed these “soldiers with cameras,” and then distilled more than 1,000 hours of footage into the 97-minute-long film.
Scranton credits Internet access with making it all possible. “It simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago,” she says.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Jesus Camp,” about an evangelical summer retreat for kids, is another leftist-bent film that’s getting Oscar buzz.
“The experience of going to this summer camp really drove home for us the reality of today’s two parallel Americas,” Grady says. “These kids have all the usual summer camp fun, but it’s all in the context of this conservative evangelical Christian movement, who feel they’re in the middle of this culture war and who see themselves surrounded by immorality and an increasingly godless society. So it was a real education to see all this firsthand.”
The four documentaries profiled here made the Academy’s short list of 15 films eligible for nomination. Politics permeates most of those other contenders as well, whether it be about the implosion of failed presidential candidate Ralph Nader, “An Unreasonable Man,” or conflicts in the Mideast, which has, in addition to “The War Tapes,” inspired no fewer than four contenders: “The Ground Truth,” “Iraq in Fragments,” “My Country, My Country” and “Storm of Emotions.”
To avoid politics completely, doc voters have only one choice: “Blindsight,” about blind kids who climb Mt. Everest.