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

PHOTO: Sixto RodriguezPlayCourtesy Sony Pictures Classics
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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."

And nobody knew who he was. "The journalists who are all there, in huge numbers along the red carpet, they're all calling out the names of people they want to have a picture of," said Longley, speaking by phone from Kabul, where he's working on a new doc. "And when you come along, unless you're Michael Moore, they don't really know who you are. The first time you do this, it can be extremely intimidating. As a documentary filmmaker, you realize just how far down the Hollywood totem pole you really are."

Perhaps. But Oren Jacoby, whose 2004 short film "Sister Rose's Passion" was nominated for an Oscar, told ABC News, "There's been a sea change within the last five to 10 years in terms of the documentary's prominence. With digital distributing and everybody watching everything everywhere, the barriers are down, and people are looking for things they're interested in, and they're as interested in watching a documentary as anything else."

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Dick agrees. "I've been making films for 25 years," he said. "And I've seen this change in the last 10 years. People come up to me all the time and tell me, 'Documentaries are my favorite genre.'"

As for the little-known truths, Kirby said about the subject of rape in the military, "I've never come across a story that was so underreported and covered up. More than half a million men and women have been sexually assaulted. And there was no feature documentary, no comprehensive book. This was an example of what documentary filmmaking can do, to bring these stories to light."

"The Invisible War" has been screened widely in Washington, D.C., and among members of the military, including outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Policies for investigating rape have changed as a result of the film, and special victims units have been established. Just last month, the film came up during Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

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"The Gatekeepers" and "5 Broken Cameras" each focus on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. "Gatekeepers" features the six surviving heads of the security agency Shin Bet -- a cross between the CIA and the FBI -- harshly criticizing the state, questioning the morality of the occupation on the West Bank and calling for dialogue with neighboring states, including Iran. "5 Broken Cameras" tells the story of the day-in, day-out struggles of a Palestinian family in a village on the West Bank.

"Why don't we see these stories on the news?" said France.

France, an investigative journalist based in New York, said he made his decision to "throw myself off the cliff" -- i.e., work on a documentary -- because there was an important story about the AIDS epidemic that had not been told. "All the major storytelling about AIDS was produced in the middle of the plague, and it was largely focused on the arrival of a mysterious new illness and what that did to the people in the country and the world. Nobody had told the story about what was done in response."

"Plague" is the story of the activists who were not only angry, as they were portrayed in the media, but who were extremely effective in their strategy in influencing the government and the health care system -- with the result that AIDS is now a treatable disease.

With the exception perhaps, of "Sugar Man," each of the documentaries tackles a current important political or social issue. "The film that used to be nominated" in the documentary category, said Jacoby, "fell into the categories of Holocaust films, disability films, ordinary people making good, fabulous unknown arts stories -- kids in the ghetto in a choir, or some anomaly, like an older person break dancing. Now the tendency seems to be more toward relevant and important social issues. And I also think the quality of the filmmaking recognized by the academy is higher than it used to be. It used to be that the subject or personality of the main character was more important. Now there's a much higher, more consistent quality and level of craft."

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And that level is what the entire Academy is now voting on. Many in the industry embrace the changes in the documentary category for its "democratization" of the process and as a signal that documentaries have arrived, but they also worry that the selection process is flawed.

Joe Berlinger, whose 2011 film "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" was nominated, said that the nomination process early on, in which documentary filmmakers are "sent 150, 160 DVD's of movies in an unrealistic amount of time to watch them," meant that not all the films were seen by the entire branch before the short list was announced. (Small screening committees once selected the films and each committee watched a different set of films.) And if Academy members could verify they'd seen all five nominated documentaries, they were allowed to vote on a separate ballot. But that was always a very small number.

"We're kidding ourselves if you think every Academy member will have seen all five titles," said Berlinger. "They'll gravitate toward the film they've seen or heard about. Part of me prefers the system where people had to certify they'd seen every title. They went to a particular screening and signed in. But that did make the numbers [of people who ultimately voted] too small. I'd like to see a middle ground here."

Sunday night, early in the show, a winner will be announced. The filmmakers ABC News spoke with this past week seem to be enjoying the congeniality of their fellow documentarians -- "We're the class of 2013," said France.

As for Bendejelloul, he seems quite happy to be waking up in Los Angeles. "It's always light, you feel happy when you wake up. Right now in Stockholm" -- where he spent three long, cold winters editing "Searching for Sugar Man" at his kitchen table – "it's daylight only five or six hours a day."