What the Nominated Documentaries Have to Offer

While the furor continues over “The Thin Blue Line’s” lack of an Oscar nomination for best documentary film, what about the documentaries that were nominated?

Unsurprisingly, all but one of them are political. (“Let’s Get Lost,” a portrait of musician Chet Baker, is the exception.) Perhaps political is too limited a word: They are films about justice and the unfaltering work of some very different men and women to see that it prevails.

The nominees are:

“The Cry of Reason--Beyers Naude: An Afrikaner Speaks Out,” produced by Robert Bilheimer and Ronald Mix. Classic in its form and formidable in its angry intelligence, this is a stirring portrait of ex-Dutch Reform churchman Naude, once looked on as a leading contender to be prime minister of South Africa, now a man some consider the logical successor to Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu.


Naude’s doubts about the compatibility of apartheid and Christian principles began well before Sharpeville, but that massacre in 1960 crystallized his thinking and shifted his orderly, white Afrikaner’s life 180 degrees. Modest, articulate and passionate in his zeal about the obscenity of apartheid, churchman Naude stands shoulder to shoulder with South Africa’s people of color, one of their most vigorous spokesmen.

As the film makes clear, Naude has endured government banning to emerge more thoughtful, more focused and more powerful than before. (Non-Academy members may be interested in knowing that this film, as well as “Promises to Keep,” will show Saturday and Sunday mornings through March at the Monicas in Santa Monica.)

“Hotel Terminus--The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie” by Marcel Ophuls, plays like a gigantic mystery story, as the dogged film maker follows the trail of the Gestapo chief whose penchant for sadism won him the nickname “Butcher of Lyon.” With meticulously detailed interviews of Barbie’s few surviving victims, with resistance heroes and/or saints and civilian sinners, Ophuls creates a schizophrenic picture of France during the Occupation, as its deeply ingrained anti-Semitism clashed with individual acts of heroism. The wonder is that--with one notable exception--Ophuls is able to keep the pressure on but the touch ironic, not thundering. This is Mozart, not Wagner.

Chilling for Americans are the interviews with ex-CIA or Army Intelligence cowboys, as it becomes clear that their anti-Communist zeal helped to keep Barbie a free man an unconscionable length of time. With a 4 1/2-hour running time, Ophuls has ample time for a multilayered portrait in this infinitely civilized and sophisticated work. The wonder is that so few untainted souls emerge by the time he is through. He has dedicated the film to one of them, a Frenchwoman who risked her life to try to save one of Barbie’s child-victims.


“Let’s Get Lost,” produced by Bruce Weber and Nan Bush, is as gorgeous-looking as Weber’s camera work can make it, which is pretty gorgeous since Weber is the photographer behind the Calvin Klein ads, but it’s vapid in the upper story. With the fullest cooperation of trumpeter/singer Chet Baker himself, Weber squints at the tragic arc of the great jazz musician’s life and produces a myopic film in the vein of purest exploitation.

Even Baker’s music is made to suffer. More than once, during footage of an old recording session, the film makers cut him off before the end of a phrase, to meander off after one of his wives or ex-girl-friends, ragging on each other, or to persuade Baker to tell another of his tall tales of his drug excesses.

With their constant comparisons between Baker’s handsome Jack-O’Lantern-cheekbones at 24, and the skull-like burned-out remains left now that he’s in his 50s, you feel the film makers are mourning the loss of another pretty face far more than they are the unraveling of a singular talent. Already stuffed with banal non-interviews, the film reaches its lowest point as Baker’s customary supply of Methadone is interrupted in Europe for more than a week. In the face of Baker’s obvious pain, a questioner asks him unctuously, “How do you feel , Chet?” Probably no worse than a Baker lover by the end of this film.

“Promises to Keep” is a lively, angry film by Ginny Durrin. It centers around a volatile activist for the homeless in Washington, D.C., the mustachioed Mitch Snyder, whom one on-camera Washington bureaucrat tries to compare with the infamous Jim Jones. The comparison is apt only in that many of the 600-odd homeless in the downtown Washington shelter are black.

Snyder is a diplomat of the Leo Durocher school of sweet-talking; that much the film makes clear. (He even seems to have put off Martin Sheen, who played him in a TV miniseries, although not enough to keep Sheen from narrating this film.) But a less abrasive man might have crumbled in the face of the federal government’s years-long opposition to the shelter that Snyder captains, right in the shadow of the White House. Neither creative bureaucratic neglect nor President Reagan’s outright reneging on his promise to fund the pilot shelter seems to faze Snyder, willing to risk his life in a 45-day fast for his cause. You may still not completely understand him by the film’s end, but you have certainly watched him in every kind of physical and psychological weather.

“Who Killed Vincent Chin?” is a question to which film makers Renee Tajima and Christine Choy knew the answer well before they began work. As one witness says bluntly, “An auto worker who was out of work beat up a Chinese guy he thought was Japanese.” The fascination of the film is the skill with which every issue behind that act is laid bare; the tensions in East Detroit that prompted a 43-year-old laid-off Chrysler foreman and his stepson to take a baseball bat to 27-year-old Chin on the night of his bachelor party.

No tenet, no person will emerge unscathed, certainly not the American judicial system. Not even the Detroit-born Chin himself, who, because his lifelong buddy was white, naively let himself believe that other fellow auto workers were equally casual and enlightened. Part of the horror of the film is getting to know Ron Ebens, the hefty, blond, slightly run-to-seed foreman, seeing how easily his rage disappears behind his “regular guy” affability.

There are also a range of motives visible within the Chinese community, prompted to nationwide action after Ebens’ appeal of his 25-year sentence sets him free. Finally, we may even question the film makers’ use of Mrs. Chin’s tragic inconsolableness as, over a four-year period, her freshets of tears are used again and again, at rallies and banquets, to set her community’s outrage off anew.


So this is the lot. And while we are brooding about omissions, let us not forget “Vincent,” a soaring biographical portrait of Van Gogh by Paul Cox, which challenges the boundaries of the form no less than “The Thin Blue Line,” and perhaps to greater emotional effect. And there was the coolly dispensed wit and vitriol in Dennis O’Rourke’s brilliant, hilarious “Cannibal Tours.” Either of these could make a berth on any “A” team worthy of the name.