Understanding the Best Documentary Nominees

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Magnolia Pictures


While most viewers will be watching the Oscars tonight to see if Meryl Streep wins Best Actress or if Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker dominates ex-husband James Cameron's Avatar, another Oscar category is quietly making big statements about our beliefs and values.

Documentary film is a funny thing. Not quite fact, but not fiction either, documentaries are more about careful manipulation of opinions and emotions than entertainment. Unlike the Best Picture nominations, grainy footage and shoddy sound can be a powerful tool and not a detriment and story line establishment is less important than convincing moviegoers of an immediate and overarching message. This year's nominees are no exception.

Three films in particular exemplify the techniques documentary filmmakers use to motivate us to think and act differently:

The Cove: Crisp aesthetics and a spy-drama plotline easily a good guy/bad guy mentality in this film about the dolphin trade in a small Japanese city. Good guys: our filmmakers, a self-proclaimed Ocean's 11-esque crew, working to save Flipper's unfortunate descendants. Bad guys: Japan.

Viewers are quickly set up to identify with the film's hero, former dolphin trainer Ric O' Barry, on a mission to reveal the mass slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Ric and his filmmaker crew are cool. They engage in secret nighttime underwater missions to save dolphins, flaunt Japanese law, and expose mercury poisoning in schoolchildren unwittingly served cast-off dolphin meat. If that wasn't enough, they show enough footage of dolphins first playfully surfing waves and then being speared, roped, and shoved onto boats in the name of Sea World. Footage of blood-stained water in the title's cove only seals the deal.

Food, Inc.: Entering the theater, Food, Inc.-goers might feel that they have already seen this film. It's more likely that they have already read it. Food, Inc.—an expose about the horrors of industrial food production—draws heavily on books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma (and even stars writers Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan) to convince us to buy organic and eat vegetarian.

Unlike The Cove, the information provided in Food, Inc is nothing new. Instead of reading about overstuffed chicken coops, cattle slaughterhouses, and deceitful corporate behavior, we see it firsthand. Images of cows being bulldozed and testimony from farmers desperately trying to make ends meet in a seriously problematic system are infinitely more powerful than Pollan's neat argument against corn subsidies and the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup in nearly everything we eat.

The filmmakers have allowed each actor a rebuttal (more often than not corporations like Perdue and Monsanto elect not to speak on film) and even Wal-Mart, seeking to join the organics market, gets a rosier than usual portrayal. The onus for change is placed on the ordinary viewer (although one gets the sense that filmmakers are probably just confirming most viewers of already held worldviews), complete with a list of actions to take alongside closing credits.

Burma VJ: Gritty and raw footage makes this film about September 2007's monk-led protests against Burma's brutal ruling military junta the seemingly least duplicitous of the bunch. Most of the camerawork is done by hand-held camcorders covertly wielded by faceless filmmakers. Our heroes are the film's reporters, members of the tenacious Democratic Voice of Burma, (and, with frequent conscious, self-reflective, and pointed images of camcorders, the medium is almost a protagonist in and of itself), struggling to show the world the truth about their country.

The main narrator, Joshua, spends most of the film in Thailand, gathering footage and information. His experience is depicted clearly and professionally, in stark contrast to the shaky protest recordings. Notably, parts of the film have been "reconstructed" according to a warning before the film even opens. While some have criticized this aspect of Burma VJ, questioning the film's overall authenticity, this upfront admission only serves to make the filmmakers (who are actually Danish, and not Burmese) more reliable and trustworthy. Every documentary fronts as truth but plays with reality—very few are this candid about it.

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