3 documentaries that should have won the Best Documentary Oscar

11 March 2013

Five documentary films were nominated for the Oscar and, as far as I can tell, the worst one won. Don’t get me wrong: I quite liked Searching for Sugar Man. But I’ve now seen 3 of the remaining films and they’re brilliant and important films. Sugar Man is a great story, for what it is.

So why didn’t one of these three films win? I suggest because they’re so hard to watch, so grueling.

The Invisible War

Start with The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, and you’ll see what I mean. I could only watch 20 minutes or less at a time — it took me 6 separate viewings — to make it through this wrenching story about the astronomical rates of rape in the military and the institutional culture of permitting those rapists to continue, unabated. Most of the victims fighting against this institutionalized rape are women, but some men have come forward as well. I could say much more about how this film made me think about how institutions are incapable of policing themselves on all manner of ethical and legal matters.

Despite all the commanders’ own claims that they have instituted a zero tolerance policy, this documentary shows with absolute clarity that sexual assault and trauma in the military is ignored except in a tiny number of cases — not least because the victims’ commanding officers are so often either friends with the perpetrators or the perpetrators themselves.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw this film, and two days later he changed the military rule determining who gets to determine whether a rape charge gets prosecuted. Look: this film is impossible to watch — but it calls for action (from the military and from us) to change how these soldiers are treated.


Then you can move on to Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras, about a self-described “peasant” in a small Palestinian village who begins filming the Israeli encroachments onto the land of his fellow townsmen. Backed up by the Israeli military and allowed no recourse to protection, the settlements continue to come. And when the Palestinians protest, the Israelis burn their olive trees — their sole source of income. And when Burnat shows up to film the actions, they destroy his cameras, one by one.

This film is so heartbreaking because at the same time, Burnat shows his youngest son’s earliest years — a child growing up angry, watching this world closely, asking his father questions about the violence. It took me 2 viewings to finish this one; I just got so angry after the first 45 minutes that I wasn’t sure I could continue, but it gets more compelling and nuanced in its later minutes. An amazing document.

How to Survive a Plague

And finally there’s How to Survive a Plague, David France’s brilliantly curated trove of footage from ACT UP’s early actions and activism during the most grim years of the AIDS crisis, roughly 1987 to 1995. For most of those years, as the bodies of dead AIDS sufferers continued to pile up, the US government and international drug companies acted as if ignoring it might make it go away. “This is a plague!” Larry Kramer booms out during one particularly difficult moment in the film.

You cannot watch this film without thinking about the first time you screamed, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” at a rally — and you really believed it, and you really believed that the officials you were screaming at would believe it too. You can’t watch without remembering the first person you saw with a KS spot on his face, or the first friend who died, or the time you realized how massive the AIDS quilt would be (and hence its impact). The only thing that allowed me to watch this all in one go was the fact that this is a film about fighting back.


So yeah, Sugar Man was a film that was a pleasure to watch; these films are impossible, enraging. I totally get it: something we just want to feel good at the end of a film.

But I’m sorry, members of the Academy: the category of Best Documentary is designed to reward exceptional journalism or storytelling about real-life events. And in comparison, Sugar Man looks like a puff piece — a great central question, with weak journalism surrounding it.

These films are hard to watch. Get over it. One of them should have won for Best Documentary to acknowledge that all is not right with the world.

8 Responses to “3 documentaries that should have won the Best Documentary Oscar”

  1. Didion Says:

    It occurs to me that I would have given the Oscar to Queen of Versailles if it had been nominated … but here I was just sticking to the actual nominees!

  2. Aldine Says:

    totally agree with you didion — both about the immense power of the docos you point to, and the wrenching experience of watching them. i wish you were on the nominating committee.

    • Didion Says:

      Thanks, Aldine! You’d be amazed to hear that my repeated anonymous letters to the Academy demanding my inclusion in the selection process have been utterly ignored!

      More seriously, apparently it’s a rule that in order to vote on a category, members must swear that they have seen all 5 films nominated in a category. I suspect they are not wholly honest.

  3. Sam Loy Says:

    Thanks for reminding me about The Invisible War. Downloading it now.
    It really doesn’t come as a surprise that the Academy went for something light. The climate of activism and Left vs. Right seems to be so heated at the moment, that they collectively probably wanted to stay out of any political row.
    By the way, have you watch The Impostor yet? Interested to know what you think.

    • Didion Says:

      Sam, The Impostor has been on my list for ages and finally watched it last night — what a great story! I love tales of con men/women and criminals. It makes me wonder why no one has made a narrative film version of Bourdin’s story — fantastic! It reminds me a little of The Return of Martin Guerre — such a powerful testament to the way people will remember their loved ones selectively if they want enough to believe that this impostor really is their long-lost brother. Amazing.

  4. Sam Loy Says:

    Just wanted to say I watched The Invisible War. Gut-wrenching stuff. Really, really fucking awful. I think it was so well done, that I have a little inkling as to what it would be like to be raped. (I don’t want to offend in saying that, I just feel the filmmakers did a brilliant job in conveying the pain.) I think the worst part would be feeling like you were trapped in a world where no one was prepared to help. Not only that, but they would try to convince you your interpretation of events was wrong. That would really drive someone crazy.
    This is truly a testament to an awful system of protection and cover-up. I hope it gets fixed and these women get the justice they deserve.

    • Didion Says:

      Ugh — I know. I had to keep pausing just in order to survive … I can’t imagine watching the whole thing in a theater. And it’s as brilliantly affecting as it is grueling.

  5. goodrumo Says:

    agreed. invisible war was my pick.

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