Three of the five Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary movie take viewers to distant places and troubled times.
The other two come out of the arts, and it wouldn't be surprising if a popular, feel-good-ish favorite, “20 Feet From Stardom,” about a generation of female backup singers, wins the Oscar statuette.
But those foreign affairs movies bear watching. Indeed, they ought to be watched and contemplated by Americans. (Each is streaming on Netflix now or may otherwise be available in the digital universe.)
“The Square,” the first-ever Egyptian-made movie in Oscar competition, puts a poignant human face on the last few years of upheaval. It follows the lives of several Egyptians who made Cairo's Tahrir Square a populist symbol and then a place of tragedy as the unintended consequences of the uprising's first achievement — the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak — led to military and police-state crackdowns.
The movie, like Egypt itself right now, ends in a political limbo, but makes you aware of what real lives are like on that roller-coaster of hope and despair.
Another nominee, “The Act of Killing,” vividly recounts a mid-1960s period of brutality in Indonesia, when a strongman government killed a million or more suspected communists. The move bears a producing imprint of the noted German filmmaker Werner Herzog, which might very well carry Oscar weight.
The third, “Dirty Wars,” speaks more directly to America's current foreign policy and its role in the world — and the picture is not pretty. Longtime war correspondent Jeremy Scahill first recounts a night-time raid by American troops in a dangerous region of Afghanistan. In the village of Gardez, in 2010, a local police official and two pregnant women are among the fatalities, apparently shot in cold blood.
The more Scahill asks American authorities questions about what happened in Gardez and why, the more he's rebuffed. Over the next few years he connects the dots, which outline the off-the-grid activities of the Joint Special Operations Command. This is the mostly secret network of military units that conduct the war on terror by stealth and assassination and at the command of President Barack Obama. JSOC produced the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and it launched a drone attack that killed an American citizen turned al-Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, and his teen-age son in Yemen.
As becomes clear in this movie, directed by Richard Rowley, and from other recent reports, U.S. special operations have taken place in scores of nations around the world. Americans need the opportunity to weigh what is being done in our name, and how far the anti-terror campaign can go before it puts into question real American values
“Dirty Wars” may be a little too hot for Oscar to handle, but as an act of fearless journalism — Scahill also produced a book by the same name — it deserves a serious look.