Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview

AMPAS’ documentary rule change has caused many to ponder if it will alter how the race is won. How will campaigning be affected now that the entire academy can vote for the winner? Will this prove to be a disadvantage for either smaller, self-released pics or big crowd-pleasers? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain: This year’s releases feature an eclectic array of nonfiction films, pics that explore a variety of subjects including politics in the Middle East, a French conman, the U.S economy, an 85-year-old sushi chef and American policy.

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (“The Law in These Parts”) Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (“5 Broken Cameras”), Dan Setton (“State 194″) and Dror Moreh (“The Gatekeepers”) each brought their own distinct approach to the politics of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

“Clearly, there is a growing dialogue and urgency around the issues in the Middle East that reflects its looming importance in world affairs,” says Thom Powers, Toronto Intl. Film Festival doc programmer.

Both “Law,” a dissection of Israel’s 43-year military legal system in the Palestinian Territories, and “5 Broken Cameras,” about a Palestinian village’s opposition to the building of Israeli settlements, made their international premieres at Sundance in January. Nine months later, TIFF screened “State 194,” about Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to have the territories recognized by the United Nations as an independent state, and “The Gatekeepers,” a series of candid interviews with six former heads of Israel’s domestic secret service agency, the Shin Bet.

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy, Michael Barker says acquiring North American rights to “Gatekeepers” back in July was a no-brainer.

Distrib also picked up music doc “Searching for Sugar Man,” about singer-guitarist Rodriguez, who became an inspiration in the anti-apartheid movement, and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis,” which chronicles the new investigation surrounding the notorious West Memphis Three murder case.

Berg and “Memphis” producer Peter Jackson weren’t the only filmmakers who took a hard-edged look at the American justice system. Ken Burns along with his co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, analyze the 1989 Central Park Jogger case and the five minority teens convicted and eventually exonerated in “The Central Park Five.”

Numerous topical docs captivated festival audiences throughout the year including Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s examination of Detroit and the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base, in “Detropia”; Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church; Lee Hirsch’s look at the lives of five victims of bullying and their families, in “Bully”; David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” about Act Up and other AIDS activists; Peter Nicks’ investigation into health care and emergency room suffering in “The Waiting Room”; Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” an exploration of rape and sexual assault in the American military; and Eugene Jarecki’s doc about America’s war on drugs, in “The House I Live In.”

“In recent years documentaries have gained such distinction in quality,” Barker says. “One of the reasons for that has to do with global turmoil. Whether it’s domestic issues, the global economy, etc., filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to delve really deeply into those volatile issues that seem to be in the news everyday.”

While social issue films were abundant this year, Magnolia Pictures’ and Indomina Releasing were responsible for exposing auds to character-driven crowd-pleasers such as David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles,” along with Bart Layton’s “The Imposter.”

Not your standard-doc fare, “Jiro,” “Versailles,” “Imposter” as well as SPC’s “Sugar Man” have captured mass aud attention and significant word-of-mouth. (In October CBS’ “60 Minutes” ran a segment on “Sugar Man.”) With the entire doc branch now allowed to vote for this year’s shortlist and the whole Academy voting for the winning documentary , it is anybody’s guess what will happen to the category that normally eschews commercially appealing docus in favor of niche fare.

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview
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