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This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Back in the ’30s, Warner Bros. would boast its hard-hitting gangster pics as being “torn from the headlines.” But most of today’s studio movies show little interest in what’s going on in the real world. With only a few exceptions — Captain Phillips, The Fifth Estate — Hollywood’s biggest narrative films have retreated into fantasy, focusing on pumped-up superheroes and sci-fi villains.
Not so the world of documentary features. Armed with digital technology that lets them range around the globe, documentary filmmakers are grappling with all sorts of hot-button topics — exposing injustices in the present and past — while also offering portraits of everyone from politicians to musicians to not-so-average men and women making a difference. As a result, a bumper crop of more than 150 feature-length docs are vying for nominations in the Academy’s hotly contested documentary feature category.
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Some already have started racking up prizes. Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square, which captures the revolutionary fever in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, won the world documentary prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a People’s Choice Award in Toronto and recently was acquired by Netflix, on the prowl for a promising Oscar contender. Sundance also gave a boost to Steve Hoover‘s Blood Brother, the story of a young American who found a calling working at an AIDS hospice in India. It won documentary jury and audience awards prizes.
Politics figure in this year’s lineup: Errol Morris grills former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known; Jacob Kornbluth presents former Labor Secretary Robert Reich‘s analysis of a widening economic gap in Inequality for All; Alex Gibney pursues Julian Assange in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks; Shola Lynch‘s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners chronicles the life of Angela Davis; animal rights gets a hearing in Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s Blackfish and Tim Phillips‘ Lion Ark; and in a sequel to his Oscar-nominated Gasland (2010), Josh Fox calls out politicians who support the natural gas industry in Gasland Part II.
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The battle for gay civil rights is at the center of several films. Linda Bloodworth Thomason‘s Bridegroom, an audience award winner at Tribeca, tells the story of a young gay couple whose relationship isn’t recognized when one of them dies. Call Me Kuchu, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, focuses on David Kato, a gay activist murdered in Uganda, while Roger Ross Williams looks at how American Evangelicals are trying to influence that country’s values in God Loves Uganda.
Atrocities abroad have resulted in some of the year’s most original docs. In The Act of Killing, which took home two prizes in Berlin, Joshua Oppenheimer gets former leaders of Indonesia’s death squads to re-enact their crimes in the style of Hollywood movies. And Rithy Panh combines archival footage and clay figures to re-create the terror of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in The Missing Picture. Using a more traditional interview approach in The Last of the Unjust, Claude Lanzmann, director of the landmark 1985 Shoah, offers an extended examination of a rabbi appointed by the Nazis to run the Theresienstadt ghetto camp in Czechoslovakia.
Not all this year’s docs are so grim: 20 Feet From Stardom, from Morgan Neville, celebrates the music industry’s often-unsung backup singers. Everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys appears in Greg “Freddy” Camalier‘s Muscle Shoals, a tribute to Alabama-based FAME Studios. And Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi are among those who take the stage in 12/12/12 for a concert to benefit the victims of Superstorm Sandy.
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Other creative types figure in Shane Salerno‘s Salinger, a tell-all about author J.D. Salinger; Frank Pavich‘s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which centers on director Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s attempt to make a movie of Frank Herbert‘s Dune; and Tim’s Vermeer, in which Teller, one half of the team of Penn & Teller, offers theories about Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Rivalries in the sports world take center stage in Lucy Walker‘s The Crash Reel, which tracks the lives of snowboarders Shaun White and Kevin Pearce, and Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, which takes disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong to task.
And, as if to demonstrate just how personal the documentary form can be, actress Sarah Polley uses the format, in Stories We Tell, to explore the question of her own parentage.
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