Ben Affleck presents the Oscar for best documentary to Malik Bendjoullel for Searching for Sugar Man. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni.)
Some people had been predicting a political Oscar night. “This year’s Oscar race has been politicized to an unusual degree,” The Washington Post said the day before the ceremony, citing Kathryn Bigelow’s being denied, or snubbed, for a Best Director nomination following Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin’s angry protestations that Zero Dark Thirty falsified the role of torture in catching Osama bin Laden; and all that silly talk of Lincoln as a useful parable for the imperative of bipartisan compromise, and also the fact that the Washington debut of Argo was held at the Canadian embassy—a bit of a reach, really, to call that political. The Post didn’t mention the real potential for political fireworks last night came in the documentary feature category. Two films, The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, held up Israel’s policies in occupied Palestine to critique. Last week, the Palestinian co-director of Cameras was detained with his family at LAX and threatened with deportation even as he waved his Oscar invitation in front of border agents to prove his right to be in the country. That story was publicized by Michael Moore—and it was hard not to imagine that should one of these pictures win, a moment might materialize like the one in 2003, when Moore used the occasion of his victory for Bowling for Columbine to light into George W. Bush’s hide. “We live in the time where we have ficticious election results that elect a fictitious president,” he said. “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
But neither of those films did win—nor the brilliant account of the AIDS activism of ACT UP, How To Survive a Plague, which might have spiced things up, too. Searching for Sugar Man (which I don’t know anything about) won; The New York Times has called it “a hugely appealing documentary about fans, faith and an enigmatic Age of Aquarius musician who burned bright and hopeful before disappearing.” Nice, I suppose, but not too political. The most political salient American documentary of the year—Queen of Verseilles, that subtly searing indictment of our culture of greed that should be put in time capsules so future Americans can precisely understand just how mad the America of 2012 had become—wasn’t nominated at all. The only thing political about last night’s ceremony, in fact, turned out to be the feminist offense you had to have taken at Seth McFarland’s charming jokes about boob shots and domestic abuse.
It used to be different, of course. Before Michael Moore, there was Marlon Brando, who in solidarity with the showdown of armed activists of the American Indian Movement with federal marshals after they seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, sent a Native American woman named Sasheen Littlefeather to accept the best actor award on his behalf.