Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The Oscars this year have given a nod to three high-quality political documentaries.
"Dirty Wars," directed by Richard Rowley and written by Jeremy Scahill, focuses on the shadow warfare that the United States has waged since 9/11.
"I called it 'Dirty Wars' because in the Obama Administration a lot of people are being led to believe that there is such a thing as a clean war, and that the drone and what's called targeted killing are anything but targeted," Scahill told Amy Goodman. "So, I called it 'Dirty Wars' because there is no such thing as a clean war, and drone warfare is not clean, but also as a sort of allusion to how we've returned to the kind of 1980s way of waging war, where the U.S. was involved in all these dirty wars in Central and Latin America, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and beyond."
Scahill is a superb journalist whose articles (including in The Progressive) and books (like the eponymous work on which the documentary is based) have chronicled the seamier side of U.S. foreign policy. "Dirty Wars" is his first foray into the film world. So, it's very impressive that the movie, with its hard-hitting critique of U.S. conduct abroad, has been so honored by the Academy.
"The Act of Killing" is perhaps the most mindboggling of the three. It deals with the mid-1960s mass killings in Indonesia in which the army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and progressives. Director Joshua Oppenheimer actually got a few of these murderers to reenact these killings, in full dramatic style!
"I lingered on this one main character, Anwar Congo," Oppenheimer said in an interview. "He started to propose these more and more complicated reenactments that were inspired by the genres of his favorite movies, Hollywood movies from the '50s and '60s."
The result is a film that critics are calling a must-see. The United States was actively complicit in the killings.
"The U.S. was very much involved with supporting and encouraging the genocide," Oppenheimer said. "The U.S. provided money. It provided some weapons. It provided radios so that the army could coordinate the killings across this vast archipelago that is Indonesia. They also provided death lists, lists of thousands of names of fairly prominent public figures, leftists, leaders of unions, intellectuals."
Jehane Noujaim's "The Square" engages with perhaps the most consequential political occurrence of recent years: the Arab Spring. (The title is, of course, a reference to Tahrir Square in Cairo.) She centers in on the lives and fates of three Egyptian protesters from 2011 to 2013. From this emerges a movie critics have raved about.
"Noujaim's film is less a final reckoning than an exciting bulletin from the front lines of an unfinished revolution," NPR's John Powers said. "I rarely say this about a movie, but I can't wait to see the sequel."
With these three nominations, the Academy is providing much-needed encouragement to political filmmakers.