Oscars get political with Pussy Riot film setting the pace for best documentary

Shortlist for nominations courts controversy with entries on death squads, homophobia in Uganda and Tahrir Square

Glinting gems, red carpet couture and conspicuous grooming are all hallmarks of Oscar night that can be relied on to brighten up March. This year, however, the Academy Awards will offer more than just glamour. Hollywood is heading to the centre of global political debate.

The films now vying for a prize in the 2014 documentary category are the most politically sensitive yet to be considered for attention at the annual Los Angeles ceremony. They include excoriating cinematic treatments of Indonesian death squads, evangelical homophobia in Uganda, the uprising in Tahrir Square and an attack on the incarceration of orca whales in marine parks.

But ahead of the pack in the controversy stakes so far is Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the film that tells the story of the trial and imprisonment of two members of the avant garde Russian protest group. Its inclusion in the shortlist of 15 films to be considered for Oscar nomination later this month has already provoked anger in Moscow, where it has been banned.

Producer and co-director Mike Lerner has recently returned from Russia, having flown out to attend a premiere that did not take place. "The ban didn't surprise me too much, but we are not sure what we will do next," he told the Observer. "Perhaps we will set up some private screenings there."

Although President Vladimir Putin ordered the release of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, as part of a new year amnesty deal, attitudes to the members of Pussy Riot are still widely condemnatory in the Russian capital. "Both women dealt with their release in a brilliant and charming way, I think: they were unbowed, but not arrogant," said Lerner. "They are human rights campaigners essentially, and they will continue their work."

The director, who made the Pussy Riot documentary with Maxim Pozdorovkin, strongly disagrees with the Russian authorities' claim that the film is pure politics. "I don't think our film is in any way a campaigning piece, although it is clearly made from our perspective. The reaction to the Oscar shortlist was very interesting in Russia. They are convinced the academy is motivated by politics. In fact, its history is apolitical or even conservative in nature. Documentaries are chosen because they are great stories." When the five nominations for the documentary award are announced on 16 January they will be the product of a change in the Hollywood voting system made two years ago and so may reflect a braver attitude from a wider pool of academicians.

The alteration, championed by Michael Moore, who made the anti-gun film Bowling for Columbine, means small committees of the documentary branch are no longer making the decisions. Now the entire documentary branch is involved. Final voting is then opened up to the whole academy, just as happens with best picture and the acting categories. "It's clear to me, and lot of people in the academy, that going to a full democracy system where everyone votes has been the key to the vast improvements we've seen," Moore said recently.

Favourites this year are The Square, a film about Tahrir Square, The Act of Killing, about Indonesian death squads, and Blackfish, the film about whales that has already provoked anger from SeaWorld. Sarah Polley's acclaimed personal film, Stories We Tell, and 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary about backing singers, are less polemical contenders.

Lerner agrees that documentaries are enjoying a heyday. "It will be interesting to see how the new voting affects the choice of the final five," he said. "There has always been a disconnect in some ways between documentaries and everyone else at the Oscars.

"But every year it gets stronger, and it is going through an incredible period right now. Every one of these 15 films is great, but I would say that our Pussy Riot film, and The Square, which I also executive-produced through Roast Beef productions, are both particularly timely and important in what they say about the countries they describe. God Loves Uganda, too, is well deserving, telling of the ongoing crisis in attitudes to homosexuality. It is great that the Oscars can be so contemporary."

Documentaries, Lerner said, are doing "a great service" to the academy by keeping the event "fresh and up to date", since feature films are usually made on a longer timescale.

Blackfish, which one American critic called the scariest film of last year, is already the subject of angry debate. It asks whether a large corporation that makes money from the orca whales in its amusement parks has covered up dangers to the trainers and to the whales. Focusing on SeaWorld's responses to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, the film argues she did not make the fatal mistakes the company has suggested. Documentaries are not required to be even-handed, and Lerner thinks this is a good thing. "I certainly would not claim any degree of objectivity in the way we made Pussy Riot," he said. "We are making a feature film and hoping to be entertaining and to make the film in the most dramatic way. That sort of objectivity is a myth anyway."

The prosecution case against Pussy Riot was given some time in his film, "ridiculous as it was", Lerner said, as were the views of Russian Orthodox religious campaigners. "We did explore why it matters to people, and that makes it more interesting. I believe you can be on someone's side without making propaganda. We want audiences to make up their own minds."

Ultimately Lerner believes the key value of such documentaries is their independence of view. "These films are being made by individuals, and that gives them a great variety and an integrity. It is something that characterises the whole shortlist this year," he said.

Ironically, the growing prominence of the documentary Oscar category may now claim its own victims. The journalist and author Sebastian Junger's shortlisted film, Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, about his friend, Tim Hetherington, the British photographer killed in Libya in 2011, poignantly suggests that Hetherington was encouraged to take greater risks by the praise he had received for Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary the two made together in 2010.


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
20 Feet from Stardom wins best documentary Oscar

Music-industry documentary takes the Academy award with a study of backing singers' working lives

Andrew Pulver

03, Mar, 2014 @2:38 AM

Article image
Oscars 2014: Alice Herz-Sommer film wins best documentary short

Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, the film-makers behind The Lady in Number 6, have paid tribute to the subject of their movie, who died a week ago


Catherine Shoard

03, Mar, 2014 @2:49 AM

Article image
From the Golden Globes to the Oscars, the battle for awards glory gets serious

It's been a vintage year for Hollywood – and the big studios are now lobbying hard in a tight and high-stakes race

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles

11, Jan, 2014 @11:37 AM

Article image
Matthew McConaughey: best actor Oscars glory beckons for slimline star

Matthew McConaughey is being hailed for his role as an HIV sufferer in Dallas Buyers Club and for his part in HBO's acclaimed series True Detective. He has escaped his romcom image and is tipped to take the best actor award tonight

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

02, Mar, 2014 @9:08 AM

Article image
The Act of Killing misses out on best documentary Oscar

Controversial documentary about anti-communist massacres in Indonesia loses out to 20 Feet from Stardom at Academy Awards

Andrew Pulver

03, Mar, 2014 @2:56 AM

Article image
Amy, Going Clear and He Named Me Malala top 2016 Oscars documentary shortlist
Record-breaking study of Amy Winehouse, assault on Scientology and portrait of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai are front runners as academy unveils contenders

Andrew Pulver

02, Dec, 2015 @2:06 PM

Article image
Guy Lodge's DVDs and downloads – Oscars special

Need a last-minute prep session for the Oscars? Turn to Blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video for everything from Captain Phillips to The Act of Killing, writes Guy Lodge

Guy Lodge

02, Mar, 2014 @12:05 AM

Article image
12 Years a Slave 'could be a game changer for black directors'
Oscar academy's first black president says movie could help loosen white dominance

Barry Neild

22, Feb, 2014 @9:07 PM

Article image
Act of Killing triggers outcry in China

Oscar nomination for documentary about massacres in Indonesia that affected Chinese community leads to calls for boycott

Andrew Pulver

22, Jan, 2014 @9:07 AM

Article image
Not the Oscars … the Guardian Film Awards longlist announced

12 Years a Slave leads the inaugural longlist, but there's also recognition for The Selfish Giant, Wadjda and more in new set of awards that aim to act as an antidote

Catherine Shoard

17, Jan, 2014 @8:44 AM