Oscar Documentaries Take on AIDS, Rape in Military, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a Lost Musician

PHOTO: Sixto Rodriguez

For Malik Bendejelloul, whose film "Searching for Sugar Man" is favored to win Best Documentary, Sunday night's awards show will be his first time at the Oscars. In fact, it will be the first time he's even seen the Oscars.

Bendejelloul, 36, lives in Stockholm, where "it's broadcast at four in the morning," he said. "Since we were kids, it was a world that wasn't really real. It was something for other people."

The first-time filmmaker's first time at the Oscars caps a seven-year journey that began when he was about to turn 30. He decided to quit his job with Swedish TV and backpack around the world. In Cape Town, South Africa, he heard the story of a musician named Rodriguez who had cut a record in Detroit in 1969. Though critically acclaimed, "Cold Fact" flopped, and Rodriguez disappeared.

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But "Cold Fact" was picked up by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, and Rodriguez, said Bendejelloul, became "as famous as the Beatles," with a "subversive political message." But for 30 years, the people who called him a hero didn't know where he was -- there were reports that he had died onstage after setting himself on fire -- until two South Africans set out to find him.

"The first time I heard the story told, my jaw dropped, it really did," Bendejelloul told ABC News. "I still think it's the best story I ever heard, and it can never happen again. South Africa during apartheid was an isolated country. Rodriguez [it turned out] was living in a house outside Detroit without a telephone. There was no Internet; now, you can't live for 30 years and not know you're a superstar."

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And that's how it started. A great story that no one knew about. "If you look at the documentaries nominated for an Oscar, all are revealing little-known truths," nominee David France ("How to Survive a Plague") told ABC News.

The 2013 Oscars marks the first time all the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be voting for Best Documentary. Academy Award winner Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine"), who was on the board of governors of the Academy's documentary branch, described the process. "For far too long, the nominees had been selected by committees, and sometimes just one or two people could block a film from even being considered for the short list," he told The New Yorker. And instead of the winner's being "decided on by sometimes as few as 200 people," there are now close to 6,000.

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For filmmakers, it's a signal that "the Academy is paying attention to documentaries," said Kirby Dick, whose film on rape in the military, "The Invisible War," has been nominated this year.

James Longley's first venture to the Oscars was in 2007 for "Iraq in Fragments." There he was, the moment mere mortals only dream of, on Hollywood's ultimate red carpet, cameras flashing, microphones everywhere, sandwiched in between Al Gore and the Queen. Well, not exactly the queen -- it was Helen Mirren, who had starred in "The Queen."

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