Best Documentary Feature Nominees:
Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul)
How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France)
The Invisible War (dir. Kirby Dick)
5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi)
The Gatekeepers (dir. Dror Moreh)
Almost all of the categories are difficult this year, but Best Documentary poses a particularly interesting dilemma. You can usually count on one film being a crowd favorite amongst a list of other more confrontational, political, or otherwise trying films. Last year Undefeated was, in hindsight, the obvious choice for this reason. This year, the bulk of the material falls in the latter category with only one – Searching for Sugar Man – seeming to be the former. Yet, even Sugar Man seems too narrow to take the prize. In reality, each of these film has a legitimate shot to win.
Searching for Sugar Man tells a fairly focused story about a mysterious musician named Rodriguez, who, after seeing his career fizzle out before it became much of a career at all, unknowingly turns into an inspiration for the South African revolution. The doc tells of a small group of South African’s quests to find Rodriguez. While Searching for Sugar Man is the current favorite, it lacks a certain emotional wallop that tends to draw non doc-watchers in. In some respects, the power of the picture is that it matches the easy going nature of its main subject. However, without a big picture issue to speak of, except perhaps a humble approach to poverty, the film might be seen as small. In it’s favor, the material here is safe, compelling, and almost impossible to dislike. Similar to likely Best Pic winner, Argo, the film has enough burning under the surface to be smart, but it’s not aggressive enough to rub people the wrong way.
The Invisible War and How to Survive a Plague suffer the opposite problem as Searching for Sugar Man. Each take on enormous and critical contemporary issues with large casts of characters to talk us through them. The focus for each of these films comes only from the call to action that their main agendas pose. In both cases, I was personal distanced by a lack of driving action or specific characterization. However, these films are emotional freight trains, that are difficult not to be affected by. How to Survive a Plague has a confrontational passion that’s admirable and rarely seen, especially in that it allows its subjects to dictate the point of view. Like Searching for Sugar Man, it’s difficult to dislike How to Survive a Plague, however, Sugar Man remains the safer choice for displaying a less divisive subject.
The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras have each gained a great deal of traction from festival communities. They’re niche, passionate, and foreign. To me, these might feel too much like “Documentaries” (with a capital “D”) to a voter base that tends more towards fiction. Seeing as the subject matters are challenging, I can’t see either of these projects garnering enough votes to offset their inevitable detractors. That said, both films do have strong enough followings to surprise.
WILL WIN: Searching for Sugar Man
COULD WIN: How to Survive a Plague
SHOULD WIN: How to Survive a Plague