Searching for Sugar Man won the Oscar for best Documentary Feature last night. I saw four of the five nominated documentaries – The Gatekeepers isn’t yet available on DVD and hasn’t played recently in Chicago – and thought any of them were worthy of the award. Searching was the the only even remotely feel-good film of the bunch and I’m glad it won. The documentary tells the unlikely story of Rodriguez, a 1970’s era Detroit musician whose albums went nowhere stateside while, unbeknownst to him, blowing up in South Africa. This undiscovered, construction worker provided the soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement and only found out about his overseas’ fame long after the fact.
5 Broken Cameras, like so many great documentaries, provides a glimpse into a world many of us know little about. Emad Burnat is a Palestinian farmer who films his village’s creative and brave responses to the ever encroaching presence of Israeli settlers. As family land is taken, olive groves destroyed, and walls built to keep Emad and his people out, the farmer turned filmmaker shoots it all even as the five cameras of the film’s title are one-by-one destroyed in the conflicts that come to define life in this village in the West Bank.
How to Survive a Plague has picked at me more than any of the other nominees. The film is a fascinating look at the activists who responded to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. Their ability to organize and fight for life-saving drugs was incredible, especially at a time when the disease carried such a stigma. The thing that picks at me is how the film portrays, rightly I assume, the central role white men played in this successful advocacy. The devastation AIDS continues to wreak on people who are not white men around the world is hinted at but never adequately acknowledged. With it’s attention to the details of activism and organizing, How to Survive a Plague might be seen as a template for others advocating for justice. However I experienced the film more pessimistically, as an acknowledgement of the powerful roles race and gender play in the possibilities and limits of systemic change. Even so, it’s a great film and definitely worth seeing.
The Invisible War was by far the most difficult of these films for me to watch. The topic is rape in the American military and the almost complete failure to investigate or prosecute the servicemen accused of sexual violence. “How can this be?” is the question that constantly ran through my head watching the wrongs suffered by many, many women and the indifference shown by their superiors.