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DVD Review: The Documentary Awards Collection

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The Academy Awards generate plenty of disagreements with their often dubious choices for nominees and winners, but no category has had it worse than Best Documentary, where the Academy has consistently ignored outstanding documentary films. When 1994’s extraordinary Hoop Dreams wasn’t even nominated, the Academy finally changed its nominating procedures, although it’s debatable whether things have changed all that much since then.

Still, there are plenty of excellent documentaries that do get recognized by the Academy, and Docurama Films have released 10 of their previously available docs that were either nominated or won the Oscar in an Awards Collection box set. Four of the included films went on to win the award.

Marjoe (1972 winner)
The earliest film in the set is also its best, following the dangerously charismatic Marjoe Gortner, who was once a four-year-old evangelist. As the film follows him, Marjoe is still evangelizing, but it’s all for show, as he milks audiences out of their money and only lets his true self be known when he’s alone with the documentary crew.

From Mao to Mozart (1980 winner)
Capturing a very specific moment in international relations for the United States, the film features virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern traveling to China to teach music shortly after the country reopened itself to the West. Also included on the disc is a short doc that recounts his trip back 20 years later.

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994 winner)
The iconic and sobering Vietnam Veterans Memorial had turbulent origins, as documented in this film that follows 21-year-old artist Maya Lin’s journey to stand up for her design against a Congress that was strongly opposed to it.

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001 winner)
A French production about an American crime case, this film is both exhilarating in its quest for the truth and frustrating in its revelations about the justice system. A 15-year-old black male is on trial for murder, with a signed confession and an eyewitness account against him, but the case is much more complex than it seems.

Dancemaker (1998 nominee)

Featuring beautifully shot archival footage of master dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor, Dancemaker will certainly appeal more to dancers than the average person, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by the immense talent on display.

Genghis Blues (1999 nominee)
This is the kind of documentary that examines a very specific phenomenon and gives it the exposure it might never have received otherwise. That phenomenon is Tuvan throat-singing, and the film explores blind blues musician Paul Pena’s fascination with the unusual sound.

Sound and Fury (2000 nominee)
Another highlight from the set, Sound and Fury opens up an entire culture that many may think they understand, but probably don’t. The deaf community is explored in a moving way as a deaf married couple must decide whether they want their deaf child to receive a cochlear implant that will allow her to hear.

The Weather Underground (2003 nominee)
A solid combination of archival footage and new interviews, the film carefully documents the origins and history of radical group The Weathermen, with a number of former members, including Bill Ayers, explaining the motivations behind their actions.

Sister Rose’s Passion (2004 nominee)
The only real disappointment in the set, the film was actually nominated for the Oscar for documentary short, a fact that the packaging works hard to obscure. It’s also not a very illuminating film, examining the work of a Dominican nun to combat anti-Semitism in a disappointingly cursory manner.

Operation Homecoming (2007 nominee)
A moving blend of poetry and history, the film reveals U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through their own words. Acclaimed actors give life to the words inspired by war.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.