By John Dolen
You’re watching the Oscars, and see scenes from provocative nominees in the Best Documentary feature category. Have you ever said, “those look good but they’ll never be in theaters or TV.” Say no more: All five nominees this year are available on Netflix, and all are worthy.
The Oscar winner is 20 Feet from Stardom, about the unknown back-up singers we’ve enjoyed in recordings and on stages over the years. This high-quality production starts slowly – but hang on, it’s quite a ride. We meet a soulful sisterhood: many were preacher’s daughters, who first lifted their voices in church choirs. Their stories, both bittersweet and triumphant, are punctuated with vignettes from the grateful stars who sought out their voices – including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, among others.
ONLINE BONUS: Notes on the other Oscar-nominated documentaries
Equally deserving of the Oscar is the daring eye-witness to a revolution, The Square. Real-time video follows the tumultuous lives of several Egyptian protesters through it all: the early mass demonstrations, the heavy-handed crackdowns, the jubilant toppling of Hosni Mubarak. But the story for the courageous filmmakers didn’t end there. A year later, people are in Tahrir Square again, betrayed by a new president who subverted the principles of the uprising by pushing an Islamic constitution. This time the footage is even more amazing as the crowds swell to an astounding 3 million, to bring down President Mohammed Morsi. A momentous time in history makes for a monumental documentary.
The Act of Killing is a haunting saga featuring Indonesian paramilitary leaders who sent thousands of communists to their deaths in 1965-66. In the present, these men are older, and incredibly, re-enact how they killed their victims, even setting up scenes with local villagers playing the parts of their long-ago victims. At first, the former death squad leaders seem to feel not a shred of remorse, but eventually they feel the pain. Since their country still celebrates them as heroes, this was such a dangerous film to make that “anonymous” appears in the credits 49 times.
Cutie and the Boxer is a moving portrayal of the off-beat world of a Japanese artist who emigrated to New York City in 1969 and the young art student he made his wife. We see them now, an elderly couple going about their life in a bare-bones apartment, a testament to the sacrifices made for the sake of their art. And we see them, poignantly, in happier years past, via video. “Cutie” as she calls herself in her own artwork, expresses both affection and anger directed at her much-older, devil-may-care husband, who tasted brief fame through paintings created by slamming pigment on with boxing gloves. Remember, this is not fiction.
Dirty Wars recounts the story of journalist Jeremy Scahill (who wrote the book of the same title) on the trail of a shadowy military outfit that reports only to President Obama. Scahill is one brave soul, and his investigative trips to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen to investigate civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. military are downright harrowing.