The Oscars are this weekend, and although most of the attention goes to the fictional films, as a progressive, I’m always intrigued by the documentary category. While the nominated documentary features are usually a strong bunch – this year being no exception – it can be difficult to find them in theaters because of their limited releases. For that reason, I want to break down the nominees in this category from an activist’s perspective so that you have a sense of each film before the big ceremony.
1. How to Survive a Plague
AIDS is such a mainstream concern at this stage that some may forget how it was deemed just a “gay problem” and summarily dismissed by politicians in the ’80s. As their comrades continually fell to the then-mysterious disease, the LGBT community and its allies rallied and engaged in civil disobedience in the face of government resistance. Since every day that passed without a cure meant more lost lives, the activist community could not afford to wait for homophobia to subside; instead, it forced U.S. leaders and scientists to look more seriously at the virus. To its credit, the film also doesn’t shy away from highlighting the inevitable splintering of activist groups with competing agendas, and how that affected the results. More than just a film about the gay community or AIDS itself, How to Survive a Plague is a fantastic portrayal of a passionate social movement that invites you to share in its successes and failures.
2. The Invisible War
This impeccably made film about rape in the military will break your heart. While the rampant rates of sexual assault amongst soldiers is upsetting enough, it is the massive cover-ups, victim-blaming and lack of accountability and discipline that will truly enrage you. The courageous former service members who share their stories portray a horrifying, mismanaged military that has purposefully turned a blind eye to rape rather than addressing the problem. As enraging as learning of this corruption and incompetence is, it is critical to draw attention to this ongoing issue. And as the epilogue reveals, the film has already accomplished some positive change. Previously, each unit’s commanding officer was tasked with handing out punishments (read: usually effectively doing nothing) to accused rapists, but now that responsibility has been removed from their biased hands.
3. 5 Broken Cameras
While Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat did not set out to become a filmmaker, he began shooting footage to document the injustices in his community. As a resident of disputed land in the West Bank, he participated in protests to protect his land and livelihood. Though Burnat always remained peaceful, he was met with violence, even winding up in a hospital for weeks. His video cameras were also met with brutality; over the course of a few years, the film utilizes a loose narrative structure showcasing how five of his cameras are destroyed in Burnat’s pursuit to document the ongoing conflict. Although Burnat tells just one side of a very complicated story, it’s a side that deserves to be seen and heard. His story will resonate with activists engaged in all sorts of struggles for the importance of citizen journalists, as well as the sad reality that oppressive forces will target these citizen journalists for daring to expose the truth.
4. Searching for Sugar Man
Though I am normally partial to documentaries that shed light on an issue, this story about a hunt for a forgotten musician is so excellently crafted that is my favorite of the bunch. Sugar Man, AKA Rodriguez, was a 70s folk musician who was a commercial flop in the United States, but became an unexpected sensation in South Africa. Though more a story than educational, it still appeals to activists anyway: unbeknownst to Rodriguez himself, his songs became anthems for a nation overcoming Apartheid and pursuing progressive values. I won’t spoil where the search for Sugar Man leads, but I will say that, at its core, the film is about how just because you’re not always recognized for the good work you do, that doesn’t mean it’s not touching people in ways you don’t realize. It’s a tear-inducing message that’s as great as Rodriguez’s music.
5. The Gatekeepers
The Gatekeepers is the only nominee I haven’t been able to catch yet, but it has received immensely positive reviews. It showcases six former members of Israel’s secret security agency tasked with combatting terrorists on both sides of the political divide. Critics seem to love not only having a new perspective on historical events, but also the agents’ conflicted morality of having to kill so many in an effort to promote peace.
Fortunately, all five nominees are already available on DVD if you want to view them for yourself before Sunday. Even more conveniently, three of the films (The Invisible War, How to Survive a Plague and 5 Broken Cameras) are available on Netflix Instant.
If you love these documentaries, I’d also recommend The House I Live In, which made the Academy Award short list, but fell short of earning a nomination. The House I Live In probes into America’s mangled “war on drugs,” as well as the racism, classism and the prison industrial complex that contribute to perpetuating this injustice.