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.

Holy shit. This film about the long AIDS crisis in San Francisco should be required viewing, it’s so good. It is grueling — I went through ten double-strength tissues and was reduced to sobbing at several points — but it does this by focusing on the personal experiences of five remarkable individuals who survived the epidemic by doing something about it.

Sometimes when I talk with my students about this part of our recent history, I realize they have no sense of several things. First, the joyousness with which so many gay men inhabited San Francisco during the 1970s and early 80s, finally finding a place where they felt at home. Second, the way that the slowly-moving news of a mysterious “gay cancer” affected all people, both gay and straight. Sex could kill you — a point that moralistic bigots like Jerry Falwell did not fail to remind us of, as if most of us required new reasons to feel guilt and shame. And finally, that this epidemic raged for so long that it couldn’t help but demoralize the people fighting hardest to find a cure, those who saw their friends dying all around them.

A lot of what we remember now is governmental inaction, like Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the disease until late in his second term, or the drug companies’ shameful privileging of profits. But for this documentary those stories (like the ones Randy Shilts exposed with And the Band Played On in 1987) remain subsidiary to the experiences of these five remarkable individuals.

David Weissman’s We Were Here shows that real people — ordinary people — made a difference. It is truly the best example of showing that we are not pawns in a big game of life, subject to the whims of the powerful and the grand forces of history. In a massive, guerrilla, grassroots effort, real people in the Bay Area changed the course of treatment, caregiving, community-building, and memorialization of the dead. They changed the course of political action to change public health practices.

This documentary leaves you with an abiding respect for these ordinary people who fought and protested and risked so much to do the right thing. Tears are still dripping out of my eyes as I write this, for the film is truly that wrenching. As I watched it I wept for my dead friends and my surviving friends and my own young adult years witnessing those men grow sick and waste away. I am so glad, and so proud, to have had the chance to hear these five individuals’ stories.