At the Oscars, Documentarians Hope Films Inspire Change

BY Tom LeGro  March 4, 2010 at 5:13 PM EDT

Green could be golden at the Oscars this Sunday, if the winner is one of the two films about the environment. Or the Academy could go a little meta and vote for one of the films nominated about the potential of muckraking or whistle-blowing to affect social change.

This year, the Best Documentary Feature category for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards is loaded with films that hope to make a statement by inciting action on a range of familiar subjects. Among them: save the dolphins (“The Cove”), save the children (“Which Way Home”), reform the food industry (“Food, Inc.”).

“Movies can be $10 and a box of popcorn or they can be a way to change the world,” says “Cove” director Louie Psihoyos.

But what if audiences are unwilling to spring for that $10? The very premise of ‘The Cove’ — the mass slaughter of dolphins in a remote Japanese coastal town — was enough to keep many movie-goers away from theaters when it was first released. But that, the nominated filmmakers agree, is very the beauty of getting an Oscar nomination and all the additional hype and attention that comes with it.

“People are scared of it,” Psyhoyos says. “This is a difficult subject. But the awards allow people to break that barrier and actually see the movie.”

‘Food, Inc.’, another environmentally conscious film, exposes the dirty underbelly of food manufacturing, while highlighting ways that the system puts profit above consumer health, the welfare of its workers and the environment.

The film gained a good deal of attention at art-house movie theaters and on college campuses (earning nearly half a million dollars at the box office), but it’s hard to gauge its success in creating wide-spread national dialogue or changing consumer behavior.

While the number of farmers’ markets is on the rise and more people are planting home gardens, “We don’t know if those are directly related,” says producer Elise Pearlstein, “but we definitely tapped into kind of a movement.”

‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers’ tells the tale of the military analyst turned whistleblower who leaked top-secret government papers about the Vietnam War to the media, stressing the need for a robust press, and promoting the idea that anyone can speak truth and change history.

A dramatic historical film that highlights not just the moral courage of a single person, but also the power of journalistic rigor, the story itself is only part of the message, says co-director Rick Goldsmith. The film is also meant to draw parallels between the Vietnam era and the psychological state of the country today.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, we were in an era where masses of people believed anything was possible. And there was change because of it. In 2010, as we finish this film, people have a sense that they cannot make a difference,” Goldsmith says. “We show what is possible when people take risks.”

With all the new kinds of cheap, portable technologies, you don’t need a Hollywood-sized budget, or even professional equipment, to record and disseminate what’s happening in the world to wide audiences. It’s a point that Anders Ostergaard illustrates in his film ‘Burma VJ.’

Lacing together the collected snippets of some very daring citizen journalism, Danish director Ostergaard highlights the work of the Burmese video-journalists who recorded the turmoil (monks on the march and the police backlash), in the streets of Yangon in 2007. International media were banned from the country, so the world relied on their footage for an understanding of what was taking place.

“I’m not an activist, but I wanted to put a film together about fear and how you conquer your fear. Our main protagonist is a 27-year-old guy who could do a lot of things with his life, but he chooses to risk his life for this,” Ostergaard says. “I wanted to show he was just an ordinary human being like you and me.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Cammisa decided to pick up her own camera and start filming ‘Which Way Home’, because of a lack of attention focused on the stories of children who try to cross the Mexican border.

Riding atop a freight train, Cammisa takes her audience along for the treacherous journey many young people face when they set out alone to reach the United States to be reunited with family or to earn money to send back home.

“Whenever this issue comes up, a lot of pundits speak about it even though they probably don’t know much about it. After being angry, I thought, ‘You’re a filmmaker, why don’t you provide something for the public?’” she says. “Nothing will change unless people realize what’s going on.”

Some film observers are grumbling that the activist films have completely overrun the Best Documentary Feature category in recent years.

“Just in terms of the Academy, I think they’re too one-note. Every one of them is an issue documentary,” says Kenneth Turan, film critic for The Los Angeles Times. “There are excellent documentaries that have a lighter touch on lighter themes, and I’d like to have seen at least one in the final five.”

The category hasn’t always been a haven for polemical filmmaking, according to Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday. For many years, the documentary nominating committee veered toward films about the arts or with a historical or show-biz slant.

But two films opened the floodgates for politically-motivated movies, she says. Michael’s Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (about the specific American cultural factors that led to the Colorado high school shooting in 1999) took the gold statue in 2003, followed by Al Gore’s global warming tale “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2007.

Both of those titles also scored big at the box office; The number of Americans who will recognize the names of this year’s nominees is much smaller.

“The nominating committee has a tendency to sidestep some of the more popular films — as well as subject material — that might be seen as too light,” Hornaday says. “We have to remember that this is a professional organization of filmmakers — it’s not a popularity contest. And I think a lot of times the people sitting at home watching the show forget that.”

Turan and many other critics have placed their bets on “The Cove” because “it’s won everything else this year,” he says.

“I really don’t like to go to the competitive aspect of this because I think it de-values art in a way that feels mean,” Psihoyos says. “The greatest thing that would happen for the documentaries is that people would see all of them.”