Since the announcement of the 2013 Oscar nominations this morning, Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Harvey Weinstein (Silver Linings Playbook), and the Beasts of the Southern Wild team have undoubtedly been peacocking around town. But what of the often ignored Best Documentary Feature category? As with the other Oscar nominations, there were a few surprises and obvious snubs on the shortlist.
To recap, the five documentaries basking in Oscar attention today are:
5 Broken Cameras
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man
The least surprising nominee – and likely front-runner — is Searching for Sugar Man, a film about two South African fans’ mission to find their musical idol, seventies rock’n’roller Rodriguez. It has thus far been nominated for pretty much every documentary award out there, but even this universally beloved critical favorite may have to fight an uphill battle against the Academy’s conservatism and self-importance. The Oscars are nothing if not the world’s most glamorous patting-of-one’s-own-back, so a portrait of a single musician might not be grandiloquent enough for self-conscious Academy voters. In fact, despite the proliferation of this subgenre, only three documentaries devoted to a musician have ever won: Arthur Rubenstein: Love of Live (1969), about the famed Polish classical pianist; From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1980), about the famed Polish classical violinist (detect a pattern here?); and Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got (1985), about the jazz clarinetist and bandleader. As you can see, the last documentary of this type to clinch the Oscar was nearly thirty years ago. We’re long due for another.
The recognition of How to Survive a Plague and The Invisible War (two in my 2012 Top Five) is mildly surprising. Both documentaries have been universally praised, but their subject matters (AIDS, rape in the military) are so weighty, and their audiences (gays and women, respectively) considered too “niche,” that I didn’t dare hope the Academy would give them a chance. Glad to be proved wrong.
The nomination of The Gatekeepers, a series of interviews with six former Shin Bet (the Israeli anti-domestic terrorism agency) heads, was thoroughly expected, if not guaranteed. The film is perhaps too stingy with context and overly narrow in focus, but Israeli director Dror Moreh lined up one-in-a-lifetime interviews with spy leaders whose job is to be tight-lipped and anonymous. Moreh somehow coaxed out of his subjects shockingly candid statements, including one former Shin Bet chief’s admission that Israeli occupation isn’t unlike that of Nazi Germany.
The Gatekeepers has a compatriot in 5 Broken Cameras, another import from Israel. Cameras is a first-person doc that details one Palestinian farmer’s attempts at non-violent resistance against the Israeli army. That makes three international documentaries being nominated this year, the third being the Swedish/British Sugar Man. Add all the nominations for Amour (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, and Foreign Language Film) this year, and the big picture signals a steadying internationalization of the Oscars over the last few years.
As for the snubs, The House I Live In, a touching but familiar excoriation of the drug war, is the most obvious example. The Imposter enjoyed a good box office, but it may have been too evasive and fractured to make a lasting impression. Detropia also seems like it just missed the cut-off, but perhaps one Detroit doc (the other being Sugar Man) was enough for the Academy. And, of course, three of the biggest names in the doc world this year — the Ken Burns-directed The Central Park Five, the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis, and the legally troubled The Queen of Versailles – weren’t even eligible for a nomination.
But the snub that matters most is that of This Is Not a Film, a 75-minute first-person documentary recorded partly on an iPhone by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi is currently under house arrest, facing a twenty-year ban on filmmaking, and appealing a six-year prison sentence for creating “propaganda against the regime.” The film itself was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. For better or worse, the Academy has used the Best Documentary Feature category as a political soapbox from time to time, hence the wins for the big-screen PowerPoint Presentation An Inconvenient Truth and the factually flexible Farenheit 9/11. By ignoring This Is Not a Film, Academy voters missed a big opportunity to publicize the tragic plight of one of their own – and to commend one of the most tragic films of the year.