Oscars 2010: Documentary Features and Shorts


A lot of people who love movies leave out one genre in particular: documentaries. I always try to include the most compelling documentaries of each year into my steady diet of movie-watching. I usually end up watching about two every three months or so. As a journalist and cinephile, I’m obligated to like documentaries. I enjoy some subjects more than others no doubt, but visuals bring certain issues to life in ways we can’t think about them reading an article.

Take this year’s Documentary Feature nominees, for instance. We’ve known the stomach-churinging process by which our food is made to some extent, but it sometimes takes a doc like Food, Inc. to really see it and understand it. The same goes for The Cove. We’ve known for ages that in certain places sea creatures such as dolphins are treated terribly, but this film aims to show just how far it has gone in this one town in Japan. Seeing is believing, plain and simple.

Documentaries are also made by people passionately concerned about the issues they are making their film about. There’s no motivation to make money when you make a documentary, it’s all about spreading your message to as many people as possible, telling a story most people don’t know that they need to hear and see or need to experience with a new perspective. It’s a powerful medium and I hope that it continues to grow and the number of documentary film festivals increases.

Best Documentary, Features

  • Food, Inc.
  • The Cove
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
  • Burma VJ
  • Which Way Home

There are a lot of great films in this category this year. Right away the race is neck-and-neck between Food, Inc. and The Cove. I’ve only seen the former, which you can read about by clicking. “Food” was very revealing about the way our food is processed and ought to convince anyone to buy food locally and at the least pay attention to where the meat they’re buying comes from. More so, you understand just how much corporate culture has actually controlled the way our food is made.

The Cove is a “save the dolphins” meets espionage documentary. A film is always a bit more compelling when what the filmmaker is doing is “illegal” in any way. The crew tries to uncover the truth while Japanese locals aim to keep them away because exposing their secrets could cost billions. Check out the trailer here.

At last year’s True/False Documentary Film Festival (currently going on this weekend), I saw the nominee Burma VJ and also got to hear from filmmaker Anders Ostergaard. The film is pretty straightforward and effective: people living in Burma risk their lives getting footage of the horrible crimes against their people and smuggling it out of the country so the rest of the world can see what’s going on. It’s a compelling subject unlike any other.

The other nominees tell interesting stories but won’t compete with the top two. The Most Dangerous Man in America tells a critical story of a time in American history where the government was first in question during the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg was inspired to leak private documents to the New York Times alleging fabrications by the government. One man deciding to stand up no matter the consequences is a story of utmost importance. Which Way Home barely landed in the category. It’s an HBO doc about Central American immigrants, mostly children, riding along trains to get to America and all they sacrifice along the way. A unique look at illegal immigration, but also a story that’s been uncovered before.

Prediction: The Cove

In a heated battle with Food, Inc., I think this is the more unique and compelling of the two.

Best Documentary, Short Subject

  • China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (watch)
  • The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
  • The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
  • Music by Prudence
  • Rabbit a la Berlin

Short subject documentaries are distinguished from feature mostly in terms of length, but also in terms of how they are reported. They usually capture one event or one aspect of a bigger issue and explore it in depth or reactively. The one common element for most of these films is the involvement of HBO in getting them aired. Many doc filmmakers have HBO’s initiative to thank for their films reaching the audience they deserve.

I provided a link to the only film I was able to watch in five parts on YouTube, China’s Unnatural Disaster. I only intended to watch just enough of it but I ended up seeing the whole thing. It’s a moving documentary that follows the parents of countless children killed in a May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province of China. This is not about a natural disaster, but the “unnatural” element of the questionable construction of the school buildings. In many cases, the school was the only building in the area to collapse. The parents, with nothing left (they only get one child in China) demand justice. They wait for the government officials to act. 10 days with no response, they march and the government tries to stop them. In light of the events in Haiti, I think this film is more prevalent than it might otherwise have been. I think it’s a definite frontrunner.

One film that no one has seen anything of is Music by Prudence. It looks to be  a touching story of a young Zimbabwean girl born deformed who finds strength in her ability to sing. Many parents kill their deformed children because they’re seen as having been cursed, but Prudence’s story is obviously much different. The film must’ve premiered in 2009, but it won’t be released until April, so I’m not sure if it can factor into the race. There isn’t even a trailer.

The other film that looks like a real contender is Rabbit a la Berlin, the fascinating concept of what the Berlin Wall was like from the perspective of the rabbits that inhabited the space between the two walls, consequently living without predators and in total bliss. The filmmakers are able to draw an interesting comparison between the rabbits and the citizens of Germany at the time. Talk about a one-of-a-kind film. I’m curious to know how it took so long to assemble the necessary footage to make this film.

The other films I don’t expect to factor in are “The Last Campaign” and “The Last Truck.” The first focuses on a Washington state governor to pass assisted suicide legislation and the second on the closing of a GM Plant with Americans losing their jobs. Both relevant issues, but I don’t think they’re as compelling.

Prediction: China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

The story is so interesting with so many layers. I think “Rabbit” if it’s as good as the premise suggests could overtake it, but I’m going with the timeliness of earth quake disasters in pushing this film over the top.

1 Comment

  1. Monica Bruns says:

    I am really looking forward to see the oscars in a few days. All the big stars at the red carpet, especially the female ones in their shine trough dresses ;). The movie Avatar shall be the biggest winner i think…

Leave a Comment