Monday, February 4, 2013

One Category at a Time: Documentary

Last year saw a tightly contested race for Best Documentary that ultimately left me guessing randomly as to which doc would win. I got it wrong, of course. It's always been tricky to anticipate which way the relatively small group of voters who attend the screenings will lean, but we don't have to worry about that this year.

A quietly announced by somewhat significant rule change occurred shortly after nominations landed: screeners will be sent out to Academy members containing the nominees for Animated Short, Live-Action Short, and Documentary Feature. Now the entire membership is allowed to vote on these categories.

This larger sample size seems like it should benefit populist fare, and that could all but seal the deal for the category's frontrunner.

The first nominee – and my personal favourite of the bunch – is 5 Broken Cameras, which not only illuminates a complex regional conflict, but is a celebration of the spirit of documentary filmmaking. But without a single guild nomination this season, I wonder if the industry really loves it that much.

The Gatekeepers tackles a similar subject but in much different fashion. It has been hailed and labelled as one of the most insightful and important films on the Middle East conflict, featuring interviews with several surviving members of Shin Bet. It's a solid contender for the win, but its reliance on talking-head interviews might damage its chances with a larger, more mainstream audience voting on it.

How to Survive a Plague made a big splash early in the season when the New York Film Critics handed it their Best First Feature prize over Beasts of the Southern Wild. The doc chronicles the feats of activism which helped develop groundbreaking treatments for AIDS, but the subject, inspiring though it may be, might not feel topical anymore.

The Invisible War might be the most emotionally reactive film of the lot. Its collection of first-hand horror stories about rape in the military should boil the blood of anyone who even has blood running through their veins. With last year's winner, Undefeated, having presumably capitalized on voters' heartstrings, maybe this one is a dark horse to be mindful of.

However, the nominee that has claimed its spot as the one to beat throughout the season is Searching for Sugar Man. With nominations from all major guilds and the lion's share of critics prizes, it has emerged as an audience favourite courtesy of its accessible human interest appeal and nifty, pseudo-mystery narrative. It's much lighter than its competition, but again, with a larger group of people voting, that could very much be to its benefit.

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
Runner-up: The Invisible War

Should win: 5 Broken Cameras
Should have been nominated: The Queen of Versailles

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