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Which film will win the Best Documentary Oscar?

With the end of the year approaching, here at DocGeeks we wanted to give you our hot tips for the future, looking at the Best Documentary Oscar nominations for the 85th Academy Awards in February. With fifteen documentaries on the shortlist, we asked some of our contributors to give their verdict on which film they think deserves the little golden man.

Kristy Hutter’s pick: The Invisible War

The shortlist for the Oscar’s best documentary is filled with some real heavyweights. Many of them address contentious issues that stir up fury at the mere mention of the subject: bullying, the drug war, climate change, Israel/Palestine. But the reason I am endorsing The Invisible War for the winner of the best doc category is because it addresses an issue that is virtually unknown.

It features a collection of testimonies that need to be heard – women opening up about being raped by their comrades in the US Armed Services. Many Americans consider those who serve as heroes – and a lot of them are. But what happens when women (and some men) fighting the enemy abroad have to first face an enemy at home? In my opinion, one of the main purposes of documentary filmmaking is to raise awareness and invoke change. Kirby Dick’s groundbreaking film does just that. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, was presumably so worried about the potential implications of the film that he reformed routine military practice in order to allow victims to report their assaults to an authority outside their unit (a lot of the times, the unit commanders were the culprits). This film holds those in power to account, which, with more attention, will hopefully lead to the improvement of a broken military.

Ben Unwin’s pick: 5 Broken Cameras

I always find picking a winning film from any list a difficult process as my current mood can often dictate which film I prefer at any given moment.  In addition I also feel rather deflated that two of my favorite documentaries of this year, Nostalgia For The Light & We Went to War, have not even made the shortlist.

My preferred choice would be Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s remarkable film 5 Broken Cameras.

I hope it wins as, if ever there was a time to remove the political rhetoric and childish name calling from the Middle East crisis, now is that time and a wider exposure for this intimate and personal film may go someway to achieving that.  I adored the fact that by weaving a complicated issue around the story of one broken camera after another revealed more to me about life on the west bank than any number of supposedly unbiased news reports.

In addition to being a simply great film, what better time to honour an artistic work that is a close collaboration between and Israeli and a Palestinian in these troubled times?

Alexandra Zeevalkink’s pick: Searching for Sugar Man

My money is on Malik Bendjelloul’s first feature documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Though it should ‘officially’ be classed as a music documentary, this film offers a fantastic narrative with a succession of unexpected events unfolding throughout the length of the film.

Searching for Sugar Man follows the search for the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of Detroit based singer/songwriter Rodriguez, who’s songs, without him ever knowing it, became the voice of the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Bendjelloul, in my opinion, did a wonderful job getting the personal, emotional, political and musical balance in this film just right.

I have to admit, I might be slightly biased having met both the director and the main character who won me over with their genuine kindness and humility as soon as I walked in the room.

Nonetheless, I am certainly not the only person who thinks this film a fabulous winner of the highest quality. It won many, many prizes, including very recently the audience award at IDFA – no light ordeal. It’s not surprising though; the cinematography is stunning, the storyline amazing, the interviewees perfectly sought out and the music so beautiful that it nearly made me cry. Now, what more could we wish for in an Oscar contender if we ever want the world to take the genre seriously?

Jacob Harbord’s pick: This Is Not A Film

This Is Not A Film definitely is a film, but not one you’d normally expect to see nominated for an Oscar! It was made famous as the film smuggled out of Iran by a USB hidden in a cake. Filmed in Jafar Panahi’s flat after the Iranian authorities had forbidden him from making films, this experimental video diary is his attempt at recreating the film he planned on making before being placed under house arrest. Within the confines of his apartment he discuss the nature of art, reflects on his filmmaking career within Iran, and documents everyday life within his tower-block prison.

This anti-film is the antithesis of Oscar red-carpet glamour and the big-issue docs that normally catch their attention. Realistically, it probably won’t win the award, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. Quietly humanizing life in Iran, Panahi shatters our notions of documentary cinema and humiliates the country’s tyrannical rulers with one of the most radical, subversive and brilliant docs ever made.

Fingers crossed that the Academy Awards see fit to honour Panahi’s courageous act of resistance and I look forward to hearing stories of them using a Battenberg to smuggle him his prize.

Luke Richardson’s pick: Searching for Sugar Man

With films covering such important, worthy subjects as paedophilia at the Vatican and the indictment of the criminal justice system in the US, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is comparatively slight, but a nevertheless compelling portrait on fandom and cultural legacy.

It’s the heartening story of Sixto Rodriguez. A Detroit based folk-rock singer back in the early 1970s, he released two albums and then disappeared into obscurity, presumed dead. Unbeknownst to him, his politicized pop music turned him into an icon in South Africa of truly “Beatlemania” acclaim. This sweet documentary follows a bunch of committed fans who, after the end of the apartheid, were inspired to hunt down the man who became the unlikely orator of a generation.

Although it’s hopes for winning the coveted prize are slim, Searching for Sugar Man is my dark horse choice. With fantastic music, humorous talking heads and unexpected revelations, it’s also heartening and redemptive; an allegorical depiction of South African liberation.

Nicola Lampard’s pick: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a very powerful documentary by Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney that endeavours to expose the horrific abuse of power by the Catholic Church.

Beginning at St. John’s school for the deaf, outlining the horrible ordeals of the young men who years ago struggled to stay sane when Father Murphy allegedly abused then, the documentary then moves on to approach the wider problem of the systematic cover up by the Vatican and the culture of silence that occurs throughout the church at all levels.

Gibney presents the story with a sense of variety; cutting between intense interviews, re-enactments, and some archive footage. Combined with a recent increase in troubling facts, the documentary ought to inspire action as well as a questioning of how this has been allowed to continue. The sensitive handling of an incredibly controversial subject makes this documentary an important piece of work and one which in my opinion is more than deserving of an Academy Award.

Joëlle Pouliot’s pick: The Invisible War

The Invisible War is my pick for the gong for two reasons: for lifting the rug that Military Sexual Trauma had been swept under and for the power the film has had to change things at the Pentagon. Director Kirby Dick and co-director Amy Ziering did excellent reporting work when it comes to demonstrating the extent of the problem and how the U.S. military has normalized sexual assault.

Their interviews with victims are powerful. They effectively show how thousands of men and women are being shunned by the system to which they had devoted their lives, after being violently abused by their “brothers-in-arms”.

The film acknowledges that many issues need to be addressed to solve the rape culture in the U.S. military. However, I appreciate that it focused on an aspect that could easily be fixed: the fact that victims were constrained to reporting abuse within their army unit.

The film immediately helped change policy and the film is now also being used as a training tool for many U.S. army bases. These are just baby steps but they certainly would not have taken place without this film.

So, that’s what we think, but how about you? Have a look at the full list of contenders by clicking here and let us know your thoughts!


Written by

Unlike half of the world’s population, Luke Richardson is a man. After wrestling for a degree at Goldsmiths College, and a brief stint in the world of stand-up comedy, he left the drab pastures of London for Scandinavia. Whilst studying a Film MA in Copenhagen, he has put his passion for culture criticism to practice, writing for publications such as The Copenhagen Post, Mint Magazine, Eat Sleep Live Film, and his own “film a day” blog, #366 Movies. Luke loves absurdist cinema, particularly the poetical visual essays of Guy Maddin. He also likes vociferous sounds and, contrary to popular belief, people.

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