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Documentaries delight Hollywood's politically engaged

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The documentary category is where Hollywood wears its conscience on its sleeve, and this Oscar season's nominees have the politically engaged members of the industry buzzing more than usual over the range and variety of topics.

Partly, that's because the motion picture academy's recent documentary winners have seemed more relevant -- and, more important, influential -- than usual. Last year's "Taxi to the Dark Side" helped draw public attention to the horrible conditions at the Guantanamo prison camp, and many in Hollywood feel it helped nudge President Barack Obama to take such quick action to close the place down.

Everyone, of course, still recalls former Vice President Al Gore's triumph with "An Inconvenient Truth," which helped move global warming out of the classroom and lecture hall and into the local multiplex.

This year's five Oscar finalists examine such topics as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a Laotian soldier's struggle for survival. A common thread running through most of the films: a look at the devastating effects of racism, discrimination and betrayal.

"Now more than ever we need to have these stories told," said longtime documentary docent Sandra Ruch, who is working to start a documentary-only film festival -- called DocAngeles -- that will launch next year in downtown L.A. "The Oscar nominees for documentaries this year are incredibly diverse. They cover every issue that is important right now globally. . . . Despite the odds, people are finding ways to make documentaries and get them finished, even if they have to max out their credit cards or borrow money from their mother-in-law."

As a result, the filmmakers are exposing the world's ills even when governments and the media won't.

This year, there's a major pre-Oscars buzz over cinematic legend Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser's "Encounters at the End of World" from ThinkFilm and Image Entertainment.

Herzog, one of international cinema's most renowned (and idiosyncratic) storytellers, traveled across Antarctica with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, interviewing the rugged biologists and climatologists who brave the forbidding continent's wastes to carry on some of cutting-edge science's most important research. (Herzog will appear at UCLA Live at Royce Hall tonight at 8.)

There's a moving visit to explorer Ernest Shackleton's eerily preserved base, a surreal sojourn to ice caves under a volcano and a heartbreaking sequence of a penguin marching in the wrong direction, walking to a certain death in the barren interior of the continent. (Very Herzog.)

"Man on Wire," an account of French aerialist Philippe Petit's illegal 1974 tightrope walk between the now destroyed World Trade Center towers is, by many accounts, the pre-Oscars favorite. It generated a major buzz at the recent Sundance festival -- and had a huge budget for a film in this category: $3 million. The film, directed by James Marsh, already has won major awards, including British film of the year. Like "An Inconvenient Truth," this is a documentary with proven crossover appeal. "It's really like a heist film, a thriller," said Marsh.

There's also likely to be some local sentiment for Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "The Garden," which documents the politics and protest surrounding the controversial destruction of a beloved community garden south of downtown Los Angeles. (Who could forget Daryl Hannah up the tree, her one-woman protest?)

"The Betrayal," co-directed by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath is a deeply personal story filmed over nearly a quarter-century. It follows a young Laotian soldier struggling to survive, first as a refugee from war-torn Southeast Asia and then on the streets of New York. It's cinematographer Kuras' first directorial effort and it's a moving portrait of what happens when human beings become wartime's "collateral damage."

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's "Trouble the Water" blends both amateur and professional film footage to recount the story of how two survivors of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans' 9th Ward rebuilt their lives. . The film includes some particularly gripping footage of the storm itself coming ashore. (Danny Glover was one of the executive producers.)

Nobelist's vist for Zones of Peace

Actress Anne Archer opened her Brentwood home Tuesday to a salon organized around a talk by Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta, who is now president of East Timor, the nation he helped lead to freedom.

The event -- which included actress Maria Bello -- was sponsored by Archer's Artists for Human Rights, which is enlisting filmmakers and other artists to raise public awareness of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ramos-Horta's remarks centered on the Zones of Peace program, an idea he developed with California-based human rights activist Mary Wald, who founded TheCommunity.com. The Zones places activists where they can work on behalf of human rights, nonviolence, literacy, small business and other building blocks to peace in small regions devastated by conflict.

It's an area in which Ramos-Horta, who has survived at least one assassination attempt since becoming president, knows well. Tiny East Timor, which endured decades of Indonesian oppression, continues to be one of the world's neediest and potentially unstable nations.

Before the event at Archer's, another one of TheCommunity.com's organizing efforts, the Peace Kids, gave a pizza party for Ramos-Horta, who took questions from a group of Los Angeles middle school students.

Bonnie Abaunza, a board member of TheCommunity .com and the Peace Kids, said, "these young people are being given a wonderful opportunity to interact with a man who has dedicated his life to peace and conflict resolution and to realize that they too can make a positive impact in their own communities."

With or without anchovies, who wouldn't want to share a slice with a Nobel laureate?

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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