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THE DOCUMENTARIES

The final 15 on Oscar shortlist in battle for nomination

Just getting a documentary made is a struggle, so the recognition that comes with being in the running for an award is heady stuff.

December 16, 2009
  • The film by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo captures the audition process for a revival of "A Chorus Line."
The film by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo captures the audition process… (Paul Kolnik / Sony Pictures…)

The 15 feature documentaries on this year's Oscar shortlist -- a semifinal round from which the final five are picked -- fall into several distinct categories, such as celebrating storied careers and fighting injustice. Here and on the following page is a brief rundown of the films that made it this far.

-- Lisa Rosen Career celebrations

First, there are the artists and athletes, known and unsung, whose efforts have made our pulses beat faster.

With "Every Little Step," directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo trace the origins of the classic musical " A Chorus Line." The tale of auditioning chorus members is relived through the heartbreaking casting process for a Broadway revival.

"Facing Ali" looks at The Greatest through the eyes of 10 men who fought him. Director Pete McCormack was thrilled "to interview older men who once lived by their bodies, to dig into their psyches and their hearts; there's a vulnerability to them that is really appealing."

"Valentino: The Last Emperor" is director Matt Tyrnauer's story of inimitable couture designer Valentino Garavani and his business partner/companion, Giancarlo Giammetti, as they rule over an empire entering its glorious sunset. Self-distributed by the filmmakers, the unexpected love story became a word-of-mouth hit.

In "The Beaches of Agnes," French filmmaker Agnes Varda looks back at her rich life and career. Hearing she made the shortlist "made me smile with pleasure," says the filmmaker. But, she adds, "the more exciting award is the reception of the audience, when they cry, when they applaud."

They fought the good fight

Then there are yesterday's heroes, whose messages still ring with power. "Soundtrack for a Revolution," from directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, conveys how music carried the heroes of the civil rights movement through their many harrowing ordeals. The powerful songs are performed by contemporary singers, including Wyclef Jean and Joss Stone.

"Sergio" tells the tale of U.N. career man Sergio Vieira de Mello, a master at "keeping his ideals while getting his hands dirty," as director Greg Barker puts it. His remarkable life is marked by tragedy as much as hope. "There's nothing like seeing Sergio's story and his message touch young people," Barker says.

A cold warrior transforms into an antiwar activist in "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers." Rick Goldsmith, who directed with Judith Ehrlich, says the material resonated because "some of the same things that happened during Vietnam -- the lies, the deception, the immorality -- were happening again," with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Fighting the good fight today

"Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders" follows new and veteran volunteers who provide medical care for citizens in war-torn nations under unimaginably harsh conditions. As one doctor says sadly, what they accomplish is "a drop in a sea of oceans."

In "Under Our Skin," from Andy Abrahams Wilson, the hidden epidemic of Lyme disease is examined, along with the response of members of the medical establishment who deny that a debilitating form of the illness even exists. Making the shortlist "gives so much validation for the people who've been suffering for so long in silence," notes Wilson.

"Food, Inc.," revealing dark secrets about the U.S. food industry, was a surprise hit. But the bigger surprise is that the heads of Monsanto, Smithfield and Tyson, the film's corporate antagonists, asked to screen it. "They sure don't like the film," says director Robert Kenner, "but they are feeling forced to watch it, and talk."

Mai Iskander's "Garbage Dreams" peeks inside the lives of the zabaleen, or "garbage people," who have made their living for 100 years picking up and recycling the garbage in Cairo. Modernization threatens their way of life, as seen through the eyes of teenage boys growing up there.

Director Rebecca Cammisa follows her young subjects onto the roofs of freight trains in Mexico as they try to immigrate to the U.S. in "Which Way Home." "We could have just interviewed people about what it's like, but I don't think that really puts the point forward of how dangerous it is," she notes. "Children are doing this."

The endangered filmmakers

Every documentarian has to fight to get his or her film made. Some have to fight to do the actual filming. In "The Cove," director Louie Psihoyos gathered a team to expose the slaughter of dolphins in a heavily guarded cove in the Japanese town of Taiji. As they risk arrest and attack, their operation plays out like an action movie.

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