Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Oscar Docs

February 04, 2007

It's February in LA and besides sunshine and 70 degree highs, that can mean only one thing - Oscar time. Suddenly, the theaters are filled not only with good and interesting movies, including some gems that you may have overlooked and which you now have another chance to see. Plus in LA, you don’t have to be an Academy member and receive copious screening copies of films since virtually every film the Academy has nominated for an award will screen for the public in local theaters between the nominations and the award show itself. As I catch up on some movie viewing over the next few weeks, I intend to post about some of these highlights.

This week I’ve had a chance to screen the nominees for Best documentary feature. As is their normal tradition, the Academy tends not to favor the actual best documentaries and instead has generated a list of five films concerned with the controversies du jour. Certainly, the Academy’s effort to make its selection process less idiosyncratic over the last few year’s has resulted in the inclusion of documentaries that some people have actually seen and admired. But frankly, the lion’s share of credit for the near revolution in broader distribution of quality non-fiction films comes from the efforts of HBO and the folks at Sundance. The five films the Academy singled out this year include a film about global warming, two about the effects of the Iraq war, and two others about child abuse perpetrated under the auspices of religion.

Probably the best known of the five is Davis Guggenheim’s film adaptation of Al Gore’s book/Keynote presentation An Inconvenient Truth. The film has had the intended effect of drawing much more attention to the critical issue of global warming and the continued willful ignorance of the right wing and the Bush administration. This film is likely a shoo-in to win given the make up of the Academy voting pool and their seeming inability to distinguish a good film from a star/topic/issue they care about. The film is slick, but it is what it is: a lecture with slides. Looking at 90 minutes of charts and graphs, even with charts and graphs done well with theatrical flair, is boring. To make matters worse, there is an attempt to graft in topics and events from Gore’s own personal and political history that, while interesting, don’t seem relevant to the project as a whole. While very well intentioned, Truth carries on in the post-Bowling for Columbine tradition where the distinctions between a documentary and a non-fiction film begin to fade.

If there is a film that can appeal to the voters more than the Al Gore lecture, it just may be Deliver Us From Evil. Amy Berg’s film recounts the Catholic Church’s failure to deal with one specific priest, Oliver O’Grady, who sexually abused children in a number of parishes in central California for decades. The film includes powerful and disturbing stories from many of his victims and their families and stands as a huge indictment of the Church’s leaders including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney. While Deliver Us relies too heavily on segments featuring lawyers involved in past and current court cases against the Church, and there are too many segments that appear overly staged, there is much to admire here. One of the most disturbing and fascinating parts of the film is O’Grady’s own emotionless account of his actions. Also included are videotaped depositions from Mahoney and other Church officials working hard to cover their history of inaction. While in many ways shot in a standard and uninteresting documentary format, Deliver Us exposes too much about human behavior and emotion to be easily ignored.

The other film in the Academy's group that deals with what some may view as child abuse by a religious organization (albeit in a more socially acceptable way) is Jesus Camp. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady focus on a group of kids from evangelical households over a year including a stay at a summer camp where they are indoctrinated and prepared to fight in America’s culture wars. The film enters a world where children are encouraged not to believe in science and faith replaces logic. Pre-adolescents talk about being “born again” at age 5 and become emotionally distressed over concepts like sin. 12-year-olds learn to proselytize and preach and do so in churches and on the streets of Washington, DC. The film also contains a cameo appearance from Ted Haggard, the now deposed “Senior Pastor” of the New Life Church in Colorado. Although the people and events in the film are creepy, it provides relatively little insight into these individuals or their lives and is focused more on the outcome of their actions. The film seems eager to make political connections between the events in the movie and the larger world, but at other times shies away from them. There is a great film in here somewhere, but I don't think this is it.

My Country, My Country is one of the two documentaries about the Iraq war in the competition this year. Both examine events in the country during the 2005 provisional elections. What is most intriguing, though, is how different in approach and style the two nominated films on Iraq are from each another. Laura Poitras has chosen to follow one man, Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician living in Baghdad as he runs for a local government post and attempts to convince others in his community to participate in the elections for the good of Iraq. This is a film about the impossible struggles of a family during an occupation looking for peace but unable to find it so must play by what rules that are left. The focus here is on the occupation and there are many scenes emphasizing the presence of foreign armed forces and the tension they create. The best moments are when the film glimpses into how these political tensions around occupation and voting begin to play out within the personal world of the family. Even though the Sunni's decide to boycott the election, Dr. Riyadh's name is still on the ballot. While he will not vote for himself in defiance of the boycott, he encourages his wife and daughters to vote which they do with a mix of excitement and resignation: proud that they have supported their father in what is also clearly a futile gesture.

However, the best film of these five is undoubtedly James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments. Unlike Poitras, Longley takes a broader and more lyrical view of Iraq during the same time period examined in My Country. While the title stinks, the film itself is a beautiful multi-layered meditation not just on the current situation in Iraq, but the lives and history of many who live there. The film is divided into three segments, each filmed in a different region of the country and focusing on a separate ethnic group. Longley is also interested in the lives of children who feature prominently in the segments on poor Sunnis living in Baghdad and Kurdish northern brick makers. These children’s stories are offset against those of much older men in the same community and each story is about much more than the war or the political realities of their lives. There is a startling beauty in these images both of nature and violence – crowded streets outside a mosque at night in Basra, a poor one room school house at dawn, and billowing smoke from a brick kiln against the evening sky. Wonderful and provoking, Iraq in Fragments will hopefully benefit from the attention it has received from the nomination. Go see it, if you can.

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