Iraq docus top Oscar shortlist of 15


The war in Iraq figures prominently among the 15 documentaries that have qualified for consideration in the feature-length docu category at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The list, released Wednesday by the Academy's docu branch, includes Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth," which offers up the testimony of veterans of the war; James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments," in which Iraqis detail their own accounts of life in wartime; Laura Poitras' "My Country, My Country," which focuses on a Sunni doctor as he campaigns in the 2005 election; and Deborah Scranton's "The War Tapes," which accompanies a National Guard unit into action.

In addition, political and cultural turmoil back in the U.S. is captured in several of the eligible films, including Frank Popper's "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" which documents a teacher, Jeff Smith, who ran for a Missouri Senate seat in 2004; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Jesus Camp," which explores a camp for preteen evangelicals against the backdrop of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court; and Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's "Shut Up & Sing," which documents the backlash encountered by the Dixie Chicks after Natalie Maines criticized President Bush.

With a domestic gross of $23.8 million, Paramount Classics' "An Inconvenient Truth," director Davis Guggenheim's record of former Vice President Al Gore's lecture about global warming, is the most commercially successful of this year's nominees -- in fact, it now stands as the third-highest-grossing, nonmusical docu of all time, behind only "Fahrenheit 9/11" ($119.2 million) and the most recent Oscar winner, "March of the Penguins" ($77.4 million).

But a number of prominent titles failed to make the cut, among them "Who Killed the Electric Car?" "Wordplay," "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," "God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of the Lost Boys of the Sudan," "Sketches of Frank Gehry" and "Screamers."

This year's list does illustrate the current prominence of female filmmakers in the docu field. The 15 films that made the cut represent the work of 20 directors -- five of the films were co-directed by two-person teams -- and of those 20 filmmakers, 15 are women.

They range from Amy Berg, who directed "Deliver Us From Evil," an account of a Catholic priest who admits to a long history of pedophilia, to Lucy Walker, whose "Blindsight" follows six blind Tibetan youths as they attempt to scale a Himalayan peak, to the "Shut Up" team of Kopple, a previous winner in the category, and Peck.

The other films that made the list include Stanley Nelson's "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple," which examines cult leader Jim Jones' ill-fated settlement in Guyana; Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto's "Sisters in Law," which looks at justice as it affects women in a small town in Cameroon; Yael Klopmann's "Storm of Emotions," which documents Israel's disengagement from Gaza; Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," which recounts the case of a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder; and Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's "An Unreasonable Man," a portrait of consumer activist Ralph Nader.

In addition to Paramount Classics, distributors represented include Lionsgate ("Deliver Us"), Focus Features ("Ground Truth"), HBO Documentary Films/Typecast Releasing ("Fragments"), Magnolia Pictures ("Jesus Camp"), Seventh Art Releasing ("Jonestown"), Zeitgeist Films ("My Country"), the Weinstein Co. ("Shut Up") and Sen Art Films ("War Tapes").

On Wednesday, ThinkFilm announced that it has acquired North American rights to "Darryl Hunt." Producer HBO Documentary Films will partner with ThinkFilm to distribute "Hunt," the 10th film released by ThinkFilm to make the docu short list in the distributor's five-year history.

The docu branch screening committee viewed the eligible documentaries in a preliminary round of screenings to arrive at the current list. Branch members will now select the five 2006 nominees from among the 15 titles on the shortlist.

Nominations will be announced Jan. 23.

Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.