Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Oscar 2013: Can Anything Overtake Sugar Man?

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It’s been a while since there’s been an obvious favorite in the Academy Awards race for Best Documentary, but this Sunday’s ceremony finally presents us with clear skies. Of the five nominees, 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War and Searching for Sugar Man, there’s one that clearly stands out: Sugar Man.

Last year, I didn’t think Undefeated would win, but it did, and I came up with a new standard for what I think pushes a documentary over the hump: its ability to move people. Not only is Sugar Man an emotional ride as it follows the career of Rodriguez, a 70s folk rocker who seemingly vanished, but it does so with music—a sure way to tug audiences’ heartstrings. The film was also the biggest box office winner in the bunch, which tends to be a predictor of the winner.

It’s as close to a lock as we’ve had in years. Everyone else is saying the same thing, which makes it a little boring, so, just for the sake of keeping things lively, let’s give the race a second thought.

First, I recently spoke with True/False Film Festival head Paul Sturtz about his upcoming documentary film festival (look for it—February 28 to March 3—book a ticket and go!); he mentioned that when he first saw Sugar Man, he saw it on a small screen and was not blown away by the film. But he booked it at last year’s festival anyway and when it played to the large audience, he recognized its magic.

If enough voters see it just on a small screen, as so many do with DVD screeners, will they miss its impact? Also, the biggest thing not going for Sugar Man is the fact that it’s not in any way a social cause film, and that could hurt it a bit. Voters like to think they’re doing some good for the world with their votes, so why not, say, fight injustice by backing The Invisible War, about rape in the American Military?

That film’s director, Kirby Dick, is a one-time nominee (for 2005’s Twist of Faith), and that tends to help. But that film is such a downer, and the issues are complex, so I don’t think it’ll happen.

The only film that really has a shot, in my mind, is How To Survive a Plague, about the fight against AIDS. There’s a sense that this film has had momentum—with lots of critics championing it, so it’s worth considering.

First, it’s important to note that How To Survive a Plague is a very good documentary, so people may vote for it on its merits. And then one must consider the devastation that AIDS wrought on the creative community; there are a lot of potential Oscar voters in Hollywood who have been touched by it. And isn’t it a worthy ideal to make this vote a way to honor the fight, the survivors and the people who died? I think so.

There’s some precedent to this thinking. Namely, the way, off-and-on, Holocaust-themed documentaries had virtual locks on Oscar wins (Genocide, Hotel Terminus, Anne Frank Remembered, Into the Arms of Strangers). Were those docs really the best of the bunch, or were they being voted on by politically like-minded voters? We don’t know the answer, but personal politics must be a factor in the voting to some degree.

In the end, though, no force will be strong enough to stem the tide that is Sugar Man. I wonder if Rodriguez will be on hand. Now, that’d move the crowd.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki