Oscar Time: Eco-Docs Get Nods


Do the Oscars matter? Ask The Cove director. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk, courtesy of ©A.M.P.A.S.

Yesterday the Academy Awards announced the nominees for the big Hollywood Oscar extravaganza on March 7. Of course, Avatar is among the ten candidates in the Best Motion Picture of the Year category, tying with the Iraqi drama, The Hurt Locker, for highest number of nominations. As a frontrunner, the record-breaking blockbuster of all-time is getting out its "controversial" environmental message, and the sci-fi epic stands a good chance of taking the prize--not just the box office top spot (for the 7 week in a row, and counting). In the Best Documentary Feature listing there are more worthy eco-contenders, including Food, Inc. and The Cove, which recently took the Critics Choice award. Here are the finalists:

• "The Cove" (Roadside Attractions), An Oceanic Preservation Society Production, Jim Clark and Fisher Stevens, Producers. An expose of the brutal dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, through a covert mission, using hidden cameras in barred areas. Also reveals toxic levels of mercury in mislabeled dolphin meat.

• "Food, Inc." (Magnolia Pictures), A Robert Kenner Films Production, Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein. An expose of the agri-industrial food chain and the dangers of hidden ingredients and the corporate practices.

• "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers", A Kovno Communications Production, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. The inside story of this pivotal event in 1971that changed history and transformed our nation's political discourse.

• "Burma VJ" (Oscilloscope Laboratories), A Magic Hour Films Production, Anders østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller. With smuggled footage, the story of the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of monks and the journalists who reveal the struggle for freedom in a closed country.

• "Which Way Home", A Mr. Mudd Production, Rebecca Cammisa. Follows unaccompanied child migrants, "the invisible ones," from Central America, on the harrowing journey through Mexico to reach the United States.

Of the 15 semi-finalists, only one other eco-film didn't make the cut, "Garbage Dreams," Mai Iskander, director (Iskander Films, Inc.), a deep look at the lives of Egyptian trash collectors.

The Cove director Louie Psihoyos, who also won the Directors Guild of America award for Best Doc, spoke in the showbiz trade The Wrap about the meaning of winning:

It's frightful how important it is [winning the Oscar]. It's the second biggest TV audience in the world, I think. And that'll also validate it in the eyes of the Japanese people.
They'll say, "Oh my god, there's that movie again." You know, they say when you're done with a film you're only about halfway there. I feel like we're about a quarter of the way there. And getting nominated would be huge. Last year, about 300,000 people saw the film. By the end of this year, with DVD and television, over 300 million people will see the film. And the Oscars can only help that.

Since the film released, the good news, as reported here, is that some dolphins are being released back to the sea. Also, the Japanese press is now ignoring the moratorium on this dolphin story and the film was shown in the Tokyo Film Festival. So would watching the Oscars in Japan and seeing The Cove win make a difference?

In the Huffington Post, director Robert Kenner of Food, Inc. said that since his film opened in theaters, "I've been invited to sit down with the very same companies that once refused to appear on camera." The director told The Wrap that the Secretary of Agriculture said, "If you lead, we will follow."

"This helps build momentum, and that can affect policy," Kenner continues, "which examines food production and consumption in the United States, and underlines the dangers of a system in which a few big companies control nearly everything we eat." Earning $4,500,000 at the box office is substantial for any documentary, so the message got out. (By comparison, Burma VJ earned just over $50,000, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story made $14 million, and The Cove might be nearing $1 mil, according to last year's Box Office Mojo figures.)

After the nominations were announced, Avatar saw a 45% jump in advance ticket sales, which bears out Psihoyos comment. About the documentary competition, he quotes Pete Seeger: "We're all pushing a log up the hill. And just as long as you're pushing, you're working." So cynicism aside about the glitzy self-congratulatory event and the small part of the show documentaries get, the heightened awareness has a rippling effect. "We're trying to change the world," says the director, "and the Oscars will help do that."

Which film would you vote for?

More on The Cove:
Oceans 11 meets Flipper: Don't Miss "The Cove"
Chatting with Fisher Stevens, Producer of Film "The Cove"
More News from Taiji: 70 Dolphins Released and Quota Drops
More on Food, Inc:
Food, Inc. Earns an Oscar Nod
TreeHugger Forums - Food Inc., The Movie
Yale's Environmental Film Fest opens with Food, Inc.

Tags: Documentaries | Dolphins | Food Safety | Hollywood | Movies