When TakePart spoke to Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill a few weeks back for their Oscar-nominated documentary short Redemption—a film that travels with a community of New York City can recyclers—the filmmakers weren’t just being humble when they said they were honored to be nominated.
“Oscars for filmmakers are a chance to expand the conversation, and the films that get as far as ours have are fortunate," Alpert told TakePart.
Added O’Neill, “It’s like a great testament to the way documentaries have ambitions to change the world and make it a better place. We all wrestle with really important topics that the world needs to know more about.”
Although the Redemption team’s comments were directed toward the documentary category, many of this year’s Academy Award nominees, fiction and nonfiction alike, have already achieved something every maker of meaningful films hopes to achieve—they have furthered a conversation to the point where action has been taken to make the world a better place.
Click through for five Oscar-nominated movies that should be taking home trophies for social change.
Silver Linings Playbook
It may have been a strategic move by awards season maestro Harvey Weinstein that thrust mental health into the spotlight rather than the boy-girl content of David O. Russell’s romantic comedy about a bipolar man (Bradley Cooper) recently released from a mental institution who battles against his own instincts to find love with a fellow neurotic (Jennifer Lawrence). Still, even if the ploy was to give more weight to what may have been perceived simply as a really good popcorn movie, the film was born out of serious intentions to destigmatize mental illness. Weinstein Company exec Renee Witt optioned Matthew Quick’s novel in part because of her own experiences growing up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother, and director Russell credits his bipolar son as an inspiration for the film. (Matthew Russell appears in the movie as Ricky, the next door neighbor who is working on a school project about mental illness.) Even if Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t win Best Picture on Sunday, it scored a meeting at the White House for the filmmakers to discuss mental health with Vice President Joe Biden.
Although much has been written about our 16th President since Steven Spielberg’s multi-nominated drama was released in October, particularly about the Great Emancipator’s skill at governing in untenably partisan times, Dr. Ranjan Batra took notice of something after seeing Lincoln that no one else did. The associate professor in the Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences department at the University of Mississippi did a little research and discovered his home state never officially ratified the 13th Amendment, the Constitutional decree that made slavery illegal in the U.S. While three other states were holdouts when the amendment was instituted in 1865, New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky all eventually came around to do the right thing in the years that followed. Mississippi was set to change its stance in 1995, only to have the resolution lost in the paperwork stages. Batra and his U of M colleague Ken Sullivan contacted Mississippi’s Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who in turn made sure the resolution would go through the proper channels. Last week, Mississippi officially ended its holdout, a testament to the enduring power of Lincoln, of film and of audiences to push for change.
Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company, is a producing partner on Lincoln.
Whether or not it wins an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, this stop-motion picture about a young outsider whose ability to see the dead becomes helpful when his small New England town is subject to a zombie invasion has already made a small bit of history. If you’d like to spare yourself a mild spoiler, click ahead, but after becoming the first PG-movie to be recognized with a GLAAD Award nomination, you might already be tipped off to Paranorman’s place as the first animated film to feature an openly gay character. As beautiful as the hand-crafted movie is as a piece of art, it’s unexpectedly touching as a narrative about making peace with our recently deceased loved ones and dealing with grade school bullies. Paranorman saves its most elegant grace note for Mitch, the aloof jock who is asked out on a date by the movie’s female lead, Courtney, and turns her down by telling her matter-of-factly and without any fuss that he has a boyfriend. The film’s co-director Chris Butler told The Advocate recently, “Every character in the movie is judging someone else, good and bad, usually misjudging, and I wanted to make the audience complicit in that.”
It’s safe to make the judgment that Paranorman is a step in the right direction.
Kim Nguyen’s drama about a 12-year-old girl who is indoctrinated into fighting for the rebels in the Congo would be remarkable alone for its unblinking depiction of the psyche of a child soldier. However, the behind-the-scenes story of War Witch’s lead actress Rachel Mwanza is equally riveting. Abandoned by her parents, she and her siblings grew up on the streets of Kinshasa for much of their childhood, which led to an appearance in a documentary about homeless youth. The producers of War Witch saw something special in Mwanza and cast her in their film, a life-changing event for the young woman who rewarded their trust with the Silver Bear prize for Best Actress last year at the Berlin Film Festival. Thanks to the expedited efforts of Mwanza’s home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Canadian government (the film is representing Canada at the Academy Awards), and the U.S., Mwanza received a visa just in time to see her work compete for another award at the Oscars, where War Witch is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Win or lose, when she returns to Kinshasa, she’ll have her education and room and board paid for by Nguyen and producers Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even until she’s 18.
Kief Davidson’s documentary short is all about starting small, from the film’s origins as the start of a feature about the global health organization Partners in Health to the duo of doctors featured in Open Heart who run the Salam Center in Sudan, the only free and well-maintained cardiac surgery clinic in Africa. There, Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza and Dr. Gino Strada work together to treat rheumatic heart disease, a rare condition in the West where preventable antibiotics have made it all but obsolete, yet a plague in Africa for people with untreated strep throat, particularly among children.
Eight such kids making the trek from Rwanda for treatment are profiled in Open Heart. None of them are assured they’ll survive their surgery. While the exposure of the overmatched doctors and the benevolent Italian NGO Emergency that supports them surely will help bring attention to the need in the region for better healthcare, the filmmakers haven’t waited around until their larger-scale release on HBO later this year for change to happen. They’ve already begun the 52 Hearts campaign, which is seeking donations to pay for 52 more children on a list of 60 who still need the life-saving surgery, a far more meaningful prize than a trophy on Sunday, if successful.