Dolphins, Monks, Migrants Aided By Oscar's Long Arm

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Dolphins, Monks, Migrants Aided By Oscar's Long Arm

By Christine Kearney on PlanetArk.org
March 2010

Documentary filmmakers are accustomed to preaching to a choir of mostly small-sized audiences who see their issue-driven films.

But nominees for the March 7 Oscars, who don't attract the controversy of a Michael Moore or the pull of Al Gore, say their nonfiction films are still reaching new eyes and a few powerful decision makers months after hitting theaters.

Issues covered in the nonfiction films include the slaughter of dolphins in Japan in "The Cove," video journalists documenting the Myanmar 2007 street protests in "Burma VJ," and child migrants from Central America attempting to cross through Mexico into the United States in "Which Way Home."

"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" looks at the 1970s government whistle-blower and "Food Inc." takes on the U.S. food industry and its unhealthy impact on people and animals.

None of them may have the immediate global impact of Gore's environmental documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" or raise the ire of political foes like Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," but each is having an impact in its own arena. And the filmmakers said they hoped an Oscar win would bring more exposure.

"We are really part of an incredibly powerful growing food movement," Food Inc.'s director Robert Kenner told Reuters about the film's impact since its release. "I wasn't fully aware of how strong and robust this was but the (release of) this film has really made it clear."

"Food Inc.," which criticizes a handful of big corporations and meat companies, was screened for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Congress is considering food safety changes highlighted in the film's tale of a mother whose 2-year-old died from E. Coli infection after he ate a hamburger.

The film made $4 million at the U.S. box offices, but DVD sales soared after Kenner and others appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"These same corporations that wouldn't talk to us began to understand that consumers are really interested in knowing what is in their food," Kenner said.

Dolphin Slaughter

"The Cove" shows Japanese fisherman luring dolphins into a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan, where activists say they are captured for marine amusement parks or slaughtered for food.

Initially, Japanese politicians and residents spoke out against the film, saying the hunts were a cherished tradition. But after much media attention in 2009, "The Cove" finally landed a Japanese distributor.

Director Louie Psihoyos said although the film had not helped close any dolphin shows at marine parks, there was a growing movement against using the mammals for amusement.

"After seeing 'The Cove', many people have contacted us saying they don't think marine mammal shows are educational, and for that reason, dolphins and whales should not be in captivity," he said in an e-mail.

A warrant is still out for his arrest in Japan.

"Which Way Home" director Rebecca Cammisa said she spent seven years making her film because she wanted people to be aware of what was happening in child migrants' risky journeys.

"I have told (the kids) that the film has gotten this special attention because their stories are so compelling and important to people in the United States," she said. "If our film wins, I will thank them during my acceptance speech."

Recognition by the world's top film honors has allowed several subjects to continuing speaking out.

"People in Burma are really proud of the movie and seeing it go to the Oscars," said Buddhist monk U Gawsita, who appears in "Burma VJ" alongside other monks leading the 2007 protests against the military regime in what is now Myanmar.

While he has since taken refuge in the United States, Gawsita said monks held in his country had been strengthened by the film's success. "In prison they are so proud of this...It is very important for the movement," he said.

Daniel Ellsberg, 78, subject of "The Most Dangerous Man in America," said the film had invigorated him and others to speak out about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That could help save untold numbers of lives," he said.