The musician known as Rodriguez, subject of the documentary "Searching… (Sony Pictures Classics )
Of the five titles vying for the Oscar in the documentary feature category, four offer hard-hitting examinations of tough-minded subjects -- the Israeli/Palestine conflict, sexual assault in the military, the emergence of AIDS activism. The fifth is a crowd-pleasing pop portrait of an unsung musician.
In "The Gatekeepers," director Dror Moreh takes viewers inside Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet with unprecedented interviews with the six surviving men who have headed the organization. Moreh referred to the film, which poses troubling questions about morality, security and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, as "a warning."
"It's really important for the people of Israel and around the world to hear it firsthand from these people," said Moreh from Tel Aviv on Thursday morning on the importance of "The Gatekeepers" as a nonfiction film. "When you see the film nobody can say these men don't understand because these are the people that worked, that spent their lives protecting the state of Israel."
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"5 Broken Cameras," co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeili Guy Davidi, looks at the conflict from a different perspective. The project began its life when Burnat started filming demonstrations in his village against Israel-erected barriers and the encroachment of Jewish settlements. It was through the protests that he met Davidi, and together the directors crafted a raw, lyrical portrait of daily life in the region.
Kirby Dick, a previous Oscar nominee for his documentary "Twist of Faith," was nominated for "The Invisible War," which chronicles the disturbing culture of rampant sexual harassment and assault within the U.S. military. The film estimates, based on extrapolation of military statistics, that 30% of servicewomen are sexually assaulted during their enlistment and that they are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan than killed by the enemy.
"What is important is bringing attention to the issue," Dick said Thursday morning. "A year ago most people in this country were unaware that this was such an issue. And I think the film has started to change that."
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Also nominated was "How To Survive a Plague," the first film directed by journalist David France. His study of the emergence of AIDS activism from 1987 to 1996 was culled largely from archival footage and details the emergence of a movement to spur the development and dissemination of pharmaceuticals, which transformed AIDS into a manageable disease.
"Nobody had looked at those years to figure out the second half of the plague years," France said from his home in New York City, "which is what those individuals did as a response and how that response produced these remarkable scientific breakthroughs. I wanted to tell the story about triumph, how it became possible to survive AIDS."
Rounding out the nominees is "Searching For Sugar Man," directed by Malik Bendjelloul, an inspiring story of second chances and unlikely success. The film details how an obscure 1970s American singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez came to be a massive star in South Africa and the efforts of fans there to locate their idol. He was eventually tracked down living in Detroit.
Having continued to spend time with Rodriguez as the two of them promoted the film together, Bendjelloul noted Thursday that "every day he becomes more and more of a role model for me."
As with nearly every category, though, there were some notable omissions among the final nominees. The climate change film "Chasing Ice," directed by Jeff Orlowski, failed to earn a documentary nomination -- though it was recognized in the best song category for "Before My Time," written by J. Ralph and sung by Scarlett Johansson.
Also overlooked for a nomination among the short-listed films: "The House I Live In," directed by Eugene Jarecki, "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch, "Detropia," directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and "The Imposter," directed by Bart Layton.
The documentary race got an early dose of controversy after Academy governor and Oscar winner Michael Moore spearheaded rules changes designed to lower the total number of films eligible for consideration in the category by requiring that every documentary be reviewed in either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. Voting procedures were also tweaked.
But the number of eligible films actually increased this year, with 126 titles meeting the criteria for consideration. That total was then winnowed to a short list of 15 from which the five nominees were chosen.
"This sort of spurs you to see a very wide range of what your peers are doing in the field," noted Dick of the new voting procedures, "and I actually think it will be good for the documentary field as a whole to have this many films be seen."
Still, such high-profile documentaries as "West of Memphis," produced by Peter Jackson, "The Central Park Five," co-directed by Ken Burns and Lauren Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles" failed to make the short list.
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