YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


They dare to defy

Many contending films set their sights on an unpopular government.

December 17, 2008|Janet Kinosian | Kinosian is a freelance writer.

Wandering the streets of her deluged New Orleans 9th Ward in one of this year's exceptional short-listed documentaries, "Trouble the Water," resident Kimberly Roberts rants before finding her uncle's body, dead and decomposing two weeks after the floodwaters: It's why "I'm so against this President Bush character, whoever he is. Look at this man, these people haven't been through my neighborhood yet looking for dead bodies. I bet my uncle is still in the house."

Roberts' anger captures the zeitgeist of many of this year's 15 shortlisted documentary feature titles: the government abuse, negligence and mismanagement that reigns down on its citizenry and, in many fascinating ways, how citizens boldly fight back.

It's a theme beloved by the academy since the protests of the '60s when documentary filmmakers decided spotlighting government shenanigans was a good idea. (Since 2000, sociopolitical topics rule both the academy nominations and winners in the documentary feature category save for 2006, when "March of the Penguins" won the gold statuette.) It's a theme this year's shortlisted documentary directors take up in spades.

"There's so much collective rage at this administration that it's hard to miss the target this year," says director Errol Morris, whose "Standard Operating Procedure" is a stark and eerie look at the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. "In past administrations, there was always something redeeming. With LBJ, yes there's the Vietnam debacle, but look at the Great Society. With Nixon, there's Southeast Asia, but he opened up China, and so forth. Here we're left with ruins in every arena across the board. The important thing, I think, is to weigh in and not stand on the sidelines." Morris says all the shortlisted docs rose well to this challenge.

"I think we can all safely say that the dissatisfaction with our government is at one of the highest points in our history," says "The Garden" director Scott Hamilton Kennedy. "For 'The Garden,' it's about the ideal of 'justice for all.' Has it become just a toothless slogan, or is it really one of the most important building blocks of our democracy? It's important that these types of stories get told . . . of doing what is best for our whole society not just those with financial and political power."




Behind a cause

Other feature-length documentary Oscar submissions that take aim at the government:

"I.O.U.S.A.": A prescient look at America's current precipitous fiscal budget debacle.

"Crips and Bloods: Made in America": A pungent indictment of racism and its complicity in South Central L.A.'s violent street-gang culture.

"Fuel": A hard look at the United States' dangerous delays on fuel efficiency.

"At the Death House Door": An unflinching look at the country's controversial death penalty.

"The Garden": A scrutiny of the politics of the back-door deals that dismantled the country's largest community garden.

"Betrayal": The devastatingly beautiful tale of one family's struggle to survive a journey from war-torn Laos to the streets of Brooklyn.

Los Angeles Times Articles