Two weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 15 feature-length documentaries that made their "short list"--of which five will be nominated at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Appropriately, this year's list is a timely snapshot of where we are as a country, mirrored in both the subject matter of the films and in who directed them. Remarkably, of the 20 directors represented (due to co-director titles), 15 are female--signaling that it wasn't just Congress that was ready to see women better represented.
Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the films on the list are about the Iraq War:
Laura Poitras' "My Country, My Country," James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments," Deborah Scranton's "The War Tapes" and Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends."
In "My Country, My Country" (nominated Tuesday for Film Independent's Spirit Award in the Best Documentary category), director Laura Poitras worked in Iraq alone for over eight months, following Dr. Riyadh, an Iraqi medical doctor, father of six and political candidate representing the Sunni people. As Riyadh speaks out against the occupation, he also makes the case for Sunni participation in the elections, but chaos is erupting around him on all sides. A festival favorite at SXSW and Berlin, this extraordinary doc won the Inspiration Award at this year's Full Frame.
"Iraq in Fragments" won the Grand Jury Prize at Full Frame, not to mention several key awards at Sundance and other festivals around the country, and is a strong contender for an Oscar nomination. Beautifully shot over the course of two years by director James Longley, the doc unfolds in three parts, creating intimate portraits reflecting the struggles of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Portraits of the National Guard that are the focus of "The War Tapes", which won Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. The film follows several members of the National Guard who, after being called up for service in Iraq, were given digital video cameras in order to document their experience. Masterfully edited from massive amounts of footage, the film not only follows the Guardsman into Iraq, but stays with their families back home, even covering the aftermath when, after returning home, they attempt to reintegrate into every day American life.
Another strong contender for a nod is the stunning "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends", which blew audiences away at Sundance and Nantucket this year. The doc also touches on the oft-ignored problem of reintegration, following young Americans who heeded the call for military service as they go through recruitment, training, combat--and then struggle to reconnect with families and communities back home.
The Middle East theme continues with a surprise on the short list--the Hebrew-Language "Storm of Emotions," directed by Yael Klopmann. The film documents the decision of the Israeli government as they order the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in August of 2005, and the political and social turmoil that follows.
But it's turmoil at home that marks the bulk of the remaining films on the list, from sex scandals in the church to miscarriages of justice in the prison system--the latter being the theme of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's fascinating work, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt." The documentary follows Hunt's 20-year battle to free himself from prison after a wrongful murder conviction at age 19. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, the film went on to win awards at festivals around the country, culminating, so far, in yesterday's nomination for a Spirit Award for Best Documentary. Making it to Oscar's final five would be yet another shot in the arm in this doc's effort to get the word out about wrongful convictions in our justice system.
"'The Trials of Darryl Hunt' was a labor of love that took over 10 years to make," Stern told indieWIRE in a recent email exchange from the IDFA. "We were inspired by Darryl Hunt, a young man convicted of a brutal rape and murder, and the people who worked tirelessly to clear him of this wrongful conviction... what we knew through the years was that Darryl Hunt was a remarkable man who was innocent and wasting his life in prison because of a troubled criminal justice system."
Domestic political themes are explored in a number of other films on Oscar's short list, including Frank Popper's "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?", the Audience Award winner at SilverDocs, and Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's "An Unreasonable Man," a hit at both Sundance and Hot Docs, and this year's Mega-Doc--Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," arguably the most concise explanation of the alarming problem of global warming ever executed.
In lighter domestic controversies, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's "Shut Up & Sing" chronicles the lives of the Dixie Chicks over a period of three years, as they go from the darlings of crossover Country to demonized traitors almost overnight, following controversial anti-Bush statements made by the group's lead singer Natalie Maines. It's worth noting that the Academy didn't choose to recognize any of the other high profile docs about musicians this year, such as Jonathan Demme's "Neil Young: Heart of Gold", Lian Lunson's "Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man," and David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon."
Throwing religion into the mix, two films that reveal wildly different aspects of Christian life made the cut--Amy Berg's "Deliver Us from Evil," and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's "Jesus Camp." "Deliver Us from Evil", which won Best Documentary at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, follows Father Oliver O'Grady, who was a dangerously active pedophile that the Catholic Church protected for over 30 years, enabling him to sexually abuse dozens if not hundreds of children.
"Jesus Camp" tells a very different story of Evangelical Christian youth as they attend the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota--a place designed to deepen their spiritual and earthly commitment to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity. The camp has since closed in the wake of a "spiritual crisis" brought on by the scandalous behavior of church leader Ted Haggart, who makes an appearance in the film. "Jesus Camp" won the Special Documentary Jury Prize at Tribeca this year, as well as the Sterling Award at SilverDocs.
Other docs rounding out the list are Lucy Walker's "Blindsight," Stanley Nelson's "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple", and Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto's "Sisters in Law."
Whichever films are ultimately nominated, the existence of a short list seems to help bring some much-needed attention to many of these documentaries. "Making the short list is truly gratifying to us, Darryl Hunt, and all the people who stood by Darryl through the years," says Stern. "Getting on the short list focuses attention to Darryl's story and on the important issues raised in the film. It is hard to know if the awards have helped the film but they mean a lot to us on a personal level. Whatever happens going forward, we are grateful for the attention we have received thus far and we look forward to future screenings of the film and the opportunity to meet with audiences."