Despite heavy subject matter, docus message is ultimately one of hope

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At this time of year, Hollywood is usually rollicking toward Oscar night, checking off awards show after awards show on the calendar. But with the writers strike casting shadows of uncertainty over the industry's biggest night at press time, the mood around town is darker than usual, so it's perhaps fitting that the nominated films -- especially in the documentary feature race -- mirror that unseasonable gloom.

This year's documentary feature shortlist was heavy indeed, with four of the 15 films dealing with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and three of those films -- Magnolia Pictures' "No End in Sight," ThinkFilm's "Taxi to the Dark Side" and the Documentary Group's "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" -- scoring nominations, alongside "War/Dance," also from ThinkFilm, and the Weinstein Co.'s "Sicko."

Naturally, documentary contenders tend to focus on serious subjects. But with the conflict in Iraq ongoing after nearly five years, it makes sense that the subject of war would feature more and more heavily in this race.

"The last couple of years since 9/11, obviously anything to do with terrorism and the war" has proved a favored subject in this competition, notes International Documentary Assn. executive director Sandra Ruch. Indeed, last year also saw four Iraq-related films make the docu shortlist, with two of those films, "Iraq in Fragments" and "My Country, My Country," landing nominations, though "An Inconvenient Truth" ultimately swept the category.

But the subtext of this year's nominated documentaries speaks to all manner of conflict, both armed and otherwise. Chief among the filmmakers' concerns -- and apparently striking a chord with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- is the immediacy of certain issues facing the U.S. and the world, with all of the nominated films exploring topics that are both urgent and underreported.

When nonprofit production company Shine Global, which works to end child exploitation through documentary media, approached "War/Dance" co-directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine about making a film on conflict-ravaged northern Uganda, the couple did some research and were shocked at their findings.

"After reading into it, we were just horrified at how little we knew about it, how it really wasn't making the U.S. papers," Nix Fine says. "And the more we looked into it, even though it was very dangerous to take the project on, we felt that it was very important to do so."

Adds Fine: "When your film is recognized by the Academy, that means thousands more people are going to see your film, and in this case, that means thousands more people will be paying attention to what's going on in northern Uganda ... and I think that's really important, especially on an issue that barely ever gets reported on, an issue where 30,000 kids have been abducted in a civil war that's been going on for over 20 years."

Similarly, "No End in Sight," from first-time filmmaker Charles Ferguson, who wrote, directed and produced the project, was nothing short of revelatory for Ferguson, who presents an account of the Bush administration's large-scale policy decisions and the occupation of Iraq.

"By the time I started making the film, it was already clear from many things, conversations with many people, that very serious mistakes had been made in Iraq, but I was just dumbfounded by the things I learned," says Ferguson, who has a doctorate in political science from MIT and spent three years as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "If somebody had told me before the war that it's going to be like this: They're not going to have telephones for the first three months that they're running the occupation ... I would never have believed how extreme that it actually was."

"Taxi to the Dark Side" director-writer-producer Alex Gibney, whose corporate-corruption docu "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" received an Oscar nomination in 2006 (and who also happens to be an executive producer of "No End in Sight"), experienced a similar sense of shock as he investigated the murder of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base and delved into the Bush administration's policies of detention and interrogation. "I found that the dark side was getting much darker than I had originally imagined," he says.

But Gibney, whose interviewees in "Taxi" include the New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, has "mixed feelings" about what many perceive as the mass media's underreporting of aspects of the war.

"I profile a number of reporters in the film who actually did a pretty good job of reporting on these issues, at least in print," he says. "I think to some extent TV news has let us down -- not so much because of the reporters themselves, but because of the gatekeepers who seem to have given up analysis for kind of quick hits and a kind of 'Crossfire' approach to the news. So, I feel like there's actually quite a bit of good reporting out there, but it felt like a tree is falling in a big forest, and I think what 'Taxi' was able to do was to put it in one place and in a visceral way so that you can really look at it."

What all five nominated films indisputably share, however, is their probing of ongoing situations that simply demand attention.

In "Sicko," which explores the U.S. health care crisis, Michael Moore follows the stories of regular people who find themselves at the insurance industry's mercy (if they can actually afford coverage at all), while director-producer Richard Robbins' "Operation Homecoming" addresses another subject facing the U.S.: the need of returning American soldiers to communicate their experiences to a public that remains, in many ways, personally detached from the war.

But amid all the dark subject matter and heartrending stories of this year's documentary feature nominees, there remains an undercurrent of hopefulness.

"I'm actually optimistic about American democracy," Ferguson says. "I think the 2006 elections showed that people were beginning to wake up, and I hope -- and I believe, not just hope -- that whoever is elected president this November will be somebody who will act very differently and think very differently about Iraq and about America than the Bush administration has done."

"I think we are in a perilous place," Gibney says, "but I don't think we're in a hopeless place. ... I think there is a way forward, but the way forward is both to reckon with the past -- that is to say, to hold some people accountable -- and also to recapture some of the fundamental values that we occasionally espouse."

The courage and determination of the filmmakers themselves provide compelling support for the case of optimism, no matter which project wins the prize or how dark its story. Documentary filmmakers "feel so absolutely passionate about (their subjects)," the IDA's Ruch says. "It doesn't stop people. No matter how difficult it is, it just doesn't stop them."

Indeed, Gibney traveled to Afghanistan alone with only an HD camera, while Sean Fine contracted malaria during the 12 weeks he spent living in a refugee camp with no electricity. And despite being told by countless friends not to make "No End in Sight" -- that it was too difficult for a first film and that too many other people would be addressing the same subject -- Ferguson forged ahead, funding the film entirely by himself.

Like the other filmmakers in the race -- and so many who might never achieve the same recognition -- he kept the faith: "Damn it," Ferguson said to himself. "I'm going to make this movie."
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