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While America’s elected leaders continue to squabble over whether or not to reopen the government and/or raise the debt ceiling, they are neglecting a host of real socio-political issues that have major implications for our nation’s future. Among them: widening income and education inequality, questionable foreign policy tactics, crackdowns on abortion rights and providers, intelligence gathering and leaks and the list the goes on. Thankfully, though, these topics are being tackled at the movies in the form of documentaries.
Seven, in particular, represent the cream of the crop. Interestingly, each of them premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Now, as they reach wider audiences, they all aim to inform, incite and lead to social change — and are among this year’s top Oscar contenders.
- Jacob Kornbluth‘s Inequality for All (RADiUS) follows former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich as he tries tirelessly to help people — especially youngsters who take his course “Wealth and Poverty” at the University of California, Berkeley (I took it with him at Brandeis University) — understand the real causes and effects of the growing gap between America’s wealthy and everyone else. Kornbluth and Reich collaborated on this project in a way not unlike Davis Guggenheim and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore did on the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), so that the resulting film not only observes its subject but also helps him — through graphics, charts and other forms of presentation — to make his case in the most engaging way possible.
- Martha Shane and Lana Wilson‘s After Tiller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) delves into the contentious debate over late-term abortions in the wake of the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a doctor who provided them, and also follows the only four doctors in America who still provide them in spite of constant threats to their safety from opponents of the procedure. Religious conservatives find it unjustifiable under any circumstances, whereas others believe that certain extenuating circumstances — such as the health of the mother being jeopardized — make it acceptable. Like past doc Oscar nominee Jesus Camp (2006), it presents both sides of the issue without editorial judgment.
- Oscar winner Alex Gibney‘s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Focus World) chronicles the rise, triumphs and struggles of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the largest secrets-revealing organization in the world. Though this film largely focuses on the Bradley Manning case, it is as relevant as ever in the era of Edward Snowden, and it is considerably more comprehensive and engaging than the live-action WikiLeaks thriller The Fifth Estate, which is now in theaters — although Assange himself has disparaged both. And, considering that a doc about the most famous pre-Manning/Snowden whistleblower — The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) — was recently nominated for an Oscar, this one probably stands a strong chance, too.
- Richard Rowley‘s Dirty Wars (Sundance Selects), a film inspired by the reporting of veteran investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, attempts to identify and retrace the work of America’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, an off-the-books military unit that covertly — and extremely controversially — carries out deadly operations oversea. The film follows Scahill to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, among other far-flung destinations, and includes his interviews with people who testify to the JSOC’s activities. This wouldn’t be the first doc to question shady U.S. activities on foreign soil and earn Academy recognition for doing so — Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), a film about the killing of an Afghan taxi driver by American soldiers, won the Oscar just a few years ago — but Errol Morris‘ Abu Ghraib doc Standard Operating Procedure (2008) wasn’t even nominated.
- Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson‘s American Promise (Rada Film Group), a black married couple based in Brooklyn, document their son and his best friend for 13 years — from their start of kindergarten through their graduation from high school — as they attempt to fit in, make friends and succeed academically at a prestigious prep school where most of their classmates are white. The film raises all sorts of questions about how race and class impact the sort of education that one can receive in 21st century America. A doc with a similar focus, I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School (1993), which followed black students at an inner-city school for a year, was awarded the Oscar 20 years ago; but a more recent look at students from low-income families struggling to get a good education, Waiting for Superman (2010), was not even nominated.
- Roger Ross Williams‘ God Loves Uganda (Variance Films) presents a deeply disturbing picture of how American activists who oppose gay rights have been financially and materially enabling extreme efforts to crack down on gays and lesbians in Uganda, most egregiously through the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which calls for homosexuals to receive the death penalty. The film’s tagline says it all: “The Christian right has fought against LGBT rights for years. In America, they’re losing. In Africa, they’re just getting started.” Docs that follow American civilians abroad have been recognized by the Academy in the past — From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1980), for instance, won the best doc Oscar — but they have generally presented Americans in a positive light, which is not how many would describe this one.
- 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (Participant Media) is a film that was made in the all-are-welcome manner of the Occupy movement it chronicles — hence its nine credited directors. Blending on-the-ground footage of the protests, interviews with individual protestors and interviews with media observers, it helps to clarify the grievances that have led to massive protests since 2011, which include social and economic inequality and tolerance for corporate malfeasance that is not afforded to the people, and profiles some of the individual faces in the crowd. Interestingly, this year’s acclaimed Egyptian doc The Square takes a fairly similar approach to documenting the even bigger but just as complicated protests that have taken place in recent years in Tahrir Square.
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