John Hazelton profiles the documentary features and shorts nominated for this year’s Academy Awards

Burma VJ

Danish writer-director Anders Ostergaard, whose previous documentaries include 2005 Bodil winner Tintin Et Moi, originally set out to make a portrait of a young Burmese underground video reporter. But when Buddhist monks rebelled against the military junta in September 2007 Ostergaard and producer Lise Lense-Moller were able to provide a glimpse into the uprising through footage shot clandestinely by the independent journalists group Democratic Voice of Burma.  

Made by Moller’s Denmark-based Magic Hour Films, the film premiered at the 2008 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, where it won the Joris Ivens Award. It also won the Danish Film Academy feature documentary award as well as prizes at the Berlin, San Francisco and Full Frame festivals.

After screening at last year’s Sundance, Burma VJ was sold by sales agent Submarine to HBO for US television and to Oscilloscope for US theatrical and DVD. First Hand Films is handling international.

Oscilloscope opened the film in US cinemas last May and theatrical launches have also occurred in Sweden, Norway, the UK and Singapore. With a celebrity endorsement from Richard Gere, the film has become part of a campaign for human rights in Burma. 

Food, Inc

This look at the highly mechanised underbelly of the US food industry and its effect on consumers — including widespread obesity and epidemic levels of diabetes — took six years to come to the screen. Producer-director Robert Kenner, whose 2005 Vietnam documentary Two Days In October won major prizes in the US and UK, worked with producer Elise Pearlstein, whose credits include the Sundance award-winning Protagonist, and co-producer Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, to examine the industry through interviews with experts, farmers, consumers and social entrepreneurs. Shooting itself took two-and-a-half years because the film-makers were denied access to many places involved in food production.

Backed by Participant Media and River Road Entertainment, the film had its premiere at the 2008 Toronto festival and went on to screen at the Berlin, Hong Kong and Deauville festivals. Honours have included the best documentary prize at last year’s Gotham Awards.

Food, Inc was released theatrically in the US last June by Magnolia Pictures and grossed an impressive $4.4m. Theatrical releases have followed in markets including Australia, France and the UK. Fortissimo Films is handling international sales.

The Cove

Dolphin-trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry was the catalyst for this mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and thriller. O’Barry joined forces with director Louie Psihoyos, actor-director-producer Fisher Stevens and the Oceanic Preservation Society to make a film about brutal dolphin hunts near the Japanese town of Taiji. Pursued by police and fishermen, the team went undercover to shoot footage of the hunts.   

The film won audience awards at last year’s Sundance (where it premiered) and at the International Documentary Film and Hot Docs festivals in the Netherlands and the UK respectively. More recently it has won best documentary awards from the US producers, writers and directors guilds and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

The Sundance screening resulted in deals with Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate for US theatrical and with The Works for international sales. The Cove was released theatrically in the US last July, with a box-office take of $850,000, and has been seen in cinemas in Australia, France, Germany, UK and South Korea.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers

Previously nominated for his documentary feature Tell The Truth And Run: George Seldes And The American Press Rick Goldsmith, working with co-producer-director Judith Ehrlich, focuses on another controversial figure in The Most Dangerous Man In America. Dr Daniel Ellsberg was a leading Vietnam War strategist when, in 1971, he leaked 7,000 pages of top-secret documents — the so-called Pentagon Papers — to the press, an act that led directly to the Watergate scandal. The story is told by Ellsberg himself in archival footage and current interviews, and through interviews with others involved, including a rarely seen interview with President Nixon. 

The film was co-produced by Goldsmith’s Kovno Communications and the Independent Television Service with funding provided by the US’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting and German-French TV outlet ZDF/Arte.

After its premiere at last year’s Toronto festival The Most Dangerous Man In America went on to screen at festivals in the Nordic region, Germany and the US. Prizes have included the special jury award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and the audience award for best documentary at January’s  Palm Springs International Film Festival.  First Run Features opened the film recently in New York and screenings throughout the US are set to follow.

Which Way Home

Director Rebecca Cammisa, who previously made Sundance documentary directing award winner Sister Helen, travelled to Mexico to shoot this look at immigration through the eyes of children trying to make it to the US. Filming in detention centres, by railway tracks and in other locations where migrants converge to travel north, Cammisa and her crew followed several unaccompanied children as they made the dangerous journey through Mexico en route to the US on a freight train they called ‘The Beast’.

Initial development of the project was made possible by a Sundance Documentary Fund grant and Cammisa also received a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed her to continue filming. HBO came on board for US cable rights and Mr Mudd, actor John Malkovich’s production company, raised the rest of the funding from private investors. The film premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and also screened at Hot Docs, Karlovy Vary and the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

HBO screened the film — which is also nominated in the Independent Spirit Awards’ documentary category — in the US last summer. International sales are being handled by New York-based Cactus Three. Cammisa says outreach projects are being planned so that the film can become “a tool for humane immigration reform”.

Documentary shorts

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears Of Sichuan Province

HBO documentary chief Sheila Nevins commissioned Emmy-winning director-producers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (best known for Baghdad ER) of New York’s Downtown Community Television Center to go to China to make this film — which premiered on the US cable channel last May — about the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The quake resulted in the deaths of 10,000 children, often due to the collapse of shoddily constructed schools, and Alpert and O’Neill uncover the pain and outrage of the bereaved families as they demand answers from the government. 

The Last Campaign Of Governor Booth Gardner

Denver-based social justice and environmental film company Just Media is behind this short from director Daniel Junge and producer Henry Ansbacher, whose credits include Iron Ladies Of Liberia, which focuses on Booth Gardner, the one-time governor of Washington state. While fighting the effects of Parkinson’s disease Gardner became a national figure in the assisted suicide debate and led a campaign to legalise the practice in his state. The film is set to screen later this year on HBO. 

The Last Truck: Closing Of A GM Plant

Director-producers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert — who previously teamed on Emmy winner A Lion In The House — shot The Last Truck around their home in Dayton, Ohio as a local General Motors factory was preparing to close its doors. The film, from Community Media Productions, views the plant’s final months through the eyes of workers and management staff as they reflect on their work and consider their next steps. It premiered last August at a Dayton screening attended by hundreds of auto workers and made its debut on HBO last September.  

Music By Prudence

The titular subject of this film from New York-based TV news, documentary and entertainment producer-writer-director Roger Ross Williams, whose credits include New York Underground, is 21-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena. Born severely disabled into a society where disabilities carry the taint of witchcraft, Mabhena and her seven young band members, all disabled, have overcome stereotypes to inspire the same people who once saw them as a curse. The iThemba Productions project, for which Elinor Burkett is nominated alongside Williams, has been picked up for distribution by HBO Documentary Films.


Rabbit A La Berlin

Polish film-maker Bartek Konopka, whose previous shorts include Berlin prize winner The Goat Walker, wrote and directed this allegorical tale about the thousands of wild rabbits who lived for decades in the no-man’s-land of the Berlin Wall — until the wall fell and the rabbits suffered a similar fate to the totalitarian system the structure defended.

The German-language short, from MS Films, with Deckert Distribution handling world sales, has screened at documentary events in Switzerland, Poland, Argentina and the US and won awardsat the Cracow and Toronto Hot Docs festivals. Producer and co-writer Anna Wydra is nominated along with Konopka.