Documentaries are the least popular film genre. They don’t showcase special effects or superstars. The protagonists are usually ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The films don’t play in big suburban theaters, nor can they compete at the box office. But through political and social exposes they can change hearts and minds the world over.
Dick Kirby’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War is a gut-wrenching expose on rape in the U.S. military.
The film contends that since 1991 about half a million military men and women have been sexually assaulted by their peers, and the U.S. military has done nothing to punish the culprits.
“The more we did these interviews, the more we really felt this is a film we had to really make and finish," said Dick Kirby. Like Kirby, most award-winning documentarians reveal hard truths that make their films tough to watch.
The Gatekeepers is a critics' favorite. Israeli director Dror Moreh interviewed six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic spy agency, responsible for gathering intelligence in the occupied West Bank.
They said fighting Palestinian terrorists meant they had to bend the rules of morality and justify collateral damage. The film exposes Israel's internal divisions and offers a grim prediction of the country's future if it doesn't make peace with its enemies.
Five Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian villager, and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, is a video diary of Emad's life under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
It's an account of how Palestinian villagers fought against the Israeli security barrier that was cutting them off from their lands.
How to Survive a Plague chronicles the early years of the AIDS epidemic and how a handful of activists stemmed its deadly tide. David France made the film.
“Everything about the way medicine and healthcare is delivered and practiced today is an outgrowth of AIDS and AIDS activism," he explained. "So I wanted to tell a story of triumph and accomplishment.”
These four nominees tell powerful stories with groundbreaking footage. But, none so far has captured the hearts of the Academy's voters as much as Searching for Sugarman.
Malik Bendjelloul’s film is about Rodriguez, a '70s rock musician from Detroit who had no idea that he became a music icon in South Africa.
“Right now, you'd have to say that that’s the putative favorite,” stated filmmaker Nina Seavey. The Emmy Award-winning filmmaker says the Academy seems to be going more for entertainment-driven documentaries and Searching for Sugarman fits the bill.
Although the Oscars may be a popularity contest, all five documentaries were selected primarily for their merit, not for their box office allure.