February 19, 2008 / 1:38 AM / 10 years ago

Gloom dominates tight Oscar documentary race

<p>Michael Moore arrives at the Uptown Theater for the Washington premiere of his movie "SiCKO" June 20, 2007.David Snyder</p>

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Viewers may think some of the nominees for best picture at next week's Academy Awards are dark, but they pale in comparison with the movies competing for the coveted Oscar for best documentary.

War, torture and sickness are some of the topics explored by the nominees. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

Unlike last year, when "An Inconvenient Truth" about Al Gore's slide show on global warming was the favorite and duly won, industry watchers say this year's contest is wide open.

Just as Oscar voters chose the Gore film to signal defense of the environment, this year they may decide the time is right to draw attention to the Iraq war.

"From the short-list to the nominees, the Academy voters were very interested in films that were about Iraq," said documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack, who writes the film blog "All these wonderful things."

"No End in Sight" documents how the military strategy of a few powerful men led to a deepening conflict, while "Operation Homecoming" puts soldiers' poignant writings about combat and loss on film.

"Taxi to the Dark Side" laments America's use of torture in prisoner interrogations at Guantanamo Bay prison camp and in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore's "Sicko" looks at the failure of the United States to provide health care to millions, including one man who must decide which of two severed fingers he can afford to have reattached.

"War/Dance" follows war-weary children in northern Uganda, describing how they rebuild their lives through music and dance. This film, a favorite with audiences, may be the most upbeat of the nominees.

"HITS HOME HARD"

Schnack said that "each of the topics could be something that the Academy wants to rally behind." Health care reform, for example, is a top issue in the U.S. presidential race.

"Sicko" is by far the most successful of the nominated documentaries at U.S. box offices, grossing $25 million, the third largest ever for a documentary of its kind.

But the Academy may overlook Moore since he won the Oscar for 2002's "Bowling for Columbine" about a tragic mass shooting in a Colorado high school.

"No End in Sight," directed by Charles Ferguson, is second at the box office among nominees, grossing $1.4 million.

Alex Gibney's timing with "Taxi," which has just been released, could not have been better with public debate raging over "waterboarding" -- a simulated drowning technique the CIA admits to having used during interrogations after the September 11 attacks.

Gibney persuaded several high-ranking officials to talk in his film about the use of torture in U.S. detention centers.

"I think they were motivated to speak out because they felt their voices weren't being heard in the corridors of power," said Gibney, also executive producer of "No End in Sight."

As is often the case in documentaries, normal people -- not stars -- get a platform to make themselves heard, like the soldiers in Richard Robbins' "Operation Homecoming," based on a writing project by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Colby Buzzell wrote his vignette, "Men in Black," after living through an horrific Iraqi street battle. "We watch the news and hear talking points like 'We shouldn't be there,' and people are sick of that," he said. "Richard's movie with soldiers telling stories hits home hard."

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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