LA Times Looks at the 15 Shortlisted Documentaries

December 16th, 2010

By Lisa Rosen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2010

The 15 films that have made this year’s Oscar shortlist, from which five nominees will be chosen, cover a range of topics, from fascinating individuals to collective horrors. All share a passion for their subjects that informs every frame of their work. Here’s a quick glance at each.

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In “Waste Land,” directed by Lucy Walker, renowned artist Vik Muniz travels to Brazil’s enormous Jardim Gramacho landfill. The pickers, or catadores, take out tons of recyclable materials daily; with their help, Muniz creates glorious portraits of them using the refuse they collect. In the process, the catadores are transformed by the art they produce.

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The limits of human potential are examined in “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould,” directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont. The brilliant, troubled pianist is revealed through remarkable new footage and interviews with his closest friends and lovers.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” directed by street artist Banksy, begins as a look at street artists in general by Thierry Guetta and then turns the lens on Guetta, who fashions himself into the artist Mr. Brainwash. “Street art is a very insular world, with kind of anonymous people working at night illegally, so it’s a hard story to tell,” says producer Jaimie D’Cruz. “Thierry was a great person to come along through happenstance.”


Sometimes one’s life becomes a work of art or achieves mythic status in its own right. The latter would certainly apply to “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.” Director Alex Gibney traces the story of Spitzer, “The Sheriff of Wall Street,” who appears as inevitably drawn to his own destruction as a character in a Greek tale.

In “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” Emily and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of their father, the great civil rights lawyer. “A lot of our motivation was a way to keep talking about racism in America,” says Emily. “The civil rights movement is more likely remembered as a success of the past instead of the ongoing struggle that we see it as, and that our father saw it as.”

For “This Way of Life,” director Thomas Burstyn found a profound subject in his charismatic New Zealand neighbor Peter Karena, a family man who lives largely off the land with his wife and six children and who refuses to compromise his ideals to satisfy society’s rigid expectations.

“The Tillman Story,” directed by Amir Bar-Lev, sets many records straight. Pat Tillman, football pro turned Army Ranger, resisted all attempts at stereotype. His extraordinary family continued that effort after his death by friendly fire was initially covered up by the military. “It’s such a tragic story on one level,” says Bar-Lev. “But on a different level, it’s a joy to spend 90 minutes with this family in the theater.”


“Restrepo,” directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, immerses the viewer into the world of U.S. soldiers deployed in one of the most dangerous posts in Afghanistan. “We didn’t paint the big picture” of the war, says Junger, “because the soldiers don’t get that big picture. Their reality is your reality.”

In “Precious Life,” director Shlomi Eldar tells the heartbreaking story of a sick Palestinian baby who needs help from Israeli doctors and donors to survive. As the story unfolded against the backdrop of the Israeli-Gaza conflict, Eldar walks a fine line between two often-intractable sides.

“Enemies of the People,” directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, investigates killers from the Khmer Rouge regime in an unbearably personal way. Sambath lost his parents and brother under Pol Pot’s rule. The point is not revenge, says Lemkin, but rather, “How do you come to terms with unfathomable violence and atrocities, and how do you make your way out of that valley of death to find a future?”


In “Inside Job,” director Charles Ferguson makes the causes of the 2008 U.S. economic crisis infuriatingly clear, drawing a line of corruption through the financial, academic and political spheres. Ferguson’s hope is that the film “contributes to a more serious public debate about these issues,” which are still as prevalent as they are insidious.

Both “The Lottery,” directed by Madeleine Sackler, and “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” directed by Davis Guggenheim, look at failing public schools, the desperate attempt by parents to get their children into successful charter schools and the lotteries that can save or crush a child’s chances for a decent education. The filmmakers found themselves filming at the same lottery in New York. “You could literally see the problem. How often do you have a visual metaphor for a crisis like that?” Sackler says. Both directors voice their delight that the other has made the shortlist. “Public education is a really tough subject to get people to pay attention to,” says Guggenheim, so the more movies, the merrier.

In “Quest for Honor,” director Mary Ann Smothers Bruni examines the heinous crime of “honor killing” of women in Iraqi Kurdistan. But lest anyone feel superior to that culture, the film points out that domestic violence kills four women a day in the U.S. Bruni hopes the film helps women meet, “support each other and come up with common strategies to stop the killing of women.”

“Gasland” director Josh Fox began studying the environmental effects of natural gas drilling, or “fracking,” when it ended up in his backyard. Here, he crosses the country to meet families suffering the nightmarish effects, including tap water that can be set on fire. Fox warns that nobody’s backyard is safe. “In Los Angeles, you get your water from the Colorado River, and that’s where they’re fracking like crazy.”