Pre-election, the broad commercial success this year of such muckraking docs as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” had pundits declaring the documentary feature as a vital big B.O. news source in the age of embedded war correspondents and media consolidation.
However, despite a charged year for nonfiction filmmaking, both politically and at the box office, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences continued to trend toward more personal, intimate storytelling, with this year’s field dominated by previously unknown filmmakers.
It doesn’t get more personal than “Born Into Brothels” from directors Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. The latter traveled to India to photograph prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district. But Briski soon became entwined in the lives of these sex workers’ stigmatized children, teaching them to use point-and-shoot cameras themselves and helping them prepare an exhibit of their photography. She ultimately tries to get all the kids out of the brothels and into boarding schools.
Kauffman — who convinced the reluctant Briski to make this all into a doc — captures this remarkable transformation of young lives.
There’s also Kirby Dick’s very personal “Twist of Faith,” the gripping account of Toledo, Ohio, firefighter and family man Tony Comes, who bravely agreed to document the devastating latent effects of being sexually abused by a priest during adolescence. It’s the first film on the topic since the explosion of clergy sex abuse reports out of Boston in 2002.
Meanwhile, exploring his Mongolian nomadic heritage, Byambasuren Davaa returns to his Gobi Desert homeland — along with his Munich Film School classmate Luigi Falorni — to capture an exotic ceremony in “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” The ancient musical ritual, in which nomads try to convince a female camel to embrace the calf she rejects, is an entry point into nomadic culture.
Also among this year’s noms, “Tupac: Resurrection” follows a long line of straight-to-vid documentaries recounting late hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur’s life. But this one — produced by MTV Films and Shakur’s mother, a former Black Panther, and directed by Lauren Lazin — is a far more eloquent effort, told through the interviews and works of an artist who seemed keenly aware of his tragic fate.
Then, of course, there’s the category’s heavyweight, “Super Size Me,” which grossed $11.5 million at the domestic box office with an expose of fast-food giant McDonald’s that’s had some people calling filmmaker Spurlock the new Upton Sinclair.
And in keeping with this year’s field, what could be more personal than Spurlock turning himself into lab rat and placing himself on a monthlong McDonald’s diet that threatened to destroy his liver?
Born Into Brothels
Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
Kudos count: DGA (nom); National Board of Review (win)
Why it’ll win: The joyful response of oppressed kids viewing their photo gallery exhibition will certainly move some Oscar voters in the same way it moved National Board of Review members. Amid a body that appreciates such expression, no nominee this year better expresses the power of art to change people’s lives for the better.
Why it won’t: Helmers Kauffman and Briski are among the greenest of the green, and the film’s scant awareness factor — it’s played on one screen so far — might prove a disadvantage against far more publicized pics like “Super Size Me.”
The Story of the Weeping Camel
Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa
Kudos count: DGA (win)
Why it’ll win: A sad, funny, sometimes brutal look at the way in which the animal and human worlds occasionally intersect to their mutual benefit; execution separates it from run-of-the-mill ethnic culture docus of the past.
Why it won’t: With the erstwhile “year of the documentary” driven by the medium’s power to tell important news stories, joyful and intrepid trips into exotic lands might not be in fashion. For whatever reason, there’s been no shortage over the years of movies that exploit the visual majesty of Mongolia’s vast grasslands or of documentaries that focus on its nomadic people.
Super Size Me
Kudos count: None
Why it’ll win: With the exception of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” no other doc this year is as responsible for improving the medium’s standing in the exhib biz. It’s by far the most publicized film in the category, and Spurlock’s execution is as clever as he is likable.
Why it won’t: Amid more earnest, personal storytelling, Spurlock may come across like a frat boy playing a big gag to some voters. Some have criticized his experiment as bells and whistles that got in the way of what should have been a meatier attack on the fast-food establishment.
Lauren Lazin and Karolyn Ali
Kudos count: None
Why it’ll win: Lazin’s story transcends just being a discussion of a hip-hop star’s life, exploring Shakur’s relationship with a radical mother, his passion for literature and his views on race relations.
Why it won’t: With at least a half-dozen previously released docus recounting Shakur’s life, the one that gets it right might suffer a bit from audience fatigue.
Twist of Faith
Kiby Dick and Eddie Schmidt
Kudos count: None
Why it’ll win: Dick is certainly the dean of this year’s doc field, enjoying previous acclaim for 1997’s “Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” as well as a documentary on French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida in 2002. Being able to take a hot news topic like sexual abuse in the clergy much further than the mainstream news media might pique the curiosity of voters.
Why it won’t: Another exploration of pedophilia, “Capturing the Friedmans,” was considered a frontrunner last year in the documentary category, but its content might have proved a little too intense for some voters.