History comes alive in 2 Oscar-nominated documentary films

The Oscar-nominated features “5 Broken Cameras” and “How to Survive a Plague” represent documentaries in the truest, purest form of the word: They capture a spark, a moment in history, and they make us feel as if we were there, too.

Both films were shot by regular people who happened to be witnessing an uprising. They’re by amateur photographers who had the foresight to record everything — long before such a practice became the norm with the advent of the iPhone and YouTube — from the mundane moments of their daily lives to scenes of violence, upheaval, death and eventually some sort of victory.

They’re very different films from very different directors on very different topics. “5 Broken Cameras” is a collaboration between Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and Israeli director Guy Davidi featuring years of footage Burnat shot in his occupied village of Bil’in, a place that became a sort of symbol for nonviolent resistance.

Each of the five cameras was destroyed in the midst of protests or gunfire; one still has a bullet lodged in the lens. But it also includes daily events in the life of this husband and father of four; he actually bought the first camera in 2005 for the reason so many parents do, to record the first smiles and steps of his youngest son, Gibreel.

“Plague” is a collection of archival footage from the late 1980s and early ’90s, as members of the New York-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) fought to find a cure for the disease as it quickly spread and claimed millions of lives.

Director David France, who was in the middle of many of these boisterous planning meetings and theatrical demonstrations, culled through thousands of hours of footage from about two dozen different sources.

Burnat of “5 Broken Cameras” said he’d always intended to make a movie, but initially figured it would be something private to show to family and friends. He felt it was his responsibility to depict the fight for territory through his own eyes.

“Many films were made about Palestine and the subject but the story was being told by people who live outside. They didn’t feel this feeling, this relation between the person and the land and how to live, how to survive in this situation under occupation,” Burnat said.

The people whose video appears in “How to Survive a Plague” similarly wanted to share their story with the world. France said the photographers had a number of motivations, from filling in the gaps of traditional media reporting to documenting when police were excessively rough during demonstrations to capturing quiet moments with loved ones before they died. The result: France often had the benefit of coverage of the same event from several different angles.

“It was a true witness-bearing,” said France, who spent two years cutting the film.

“In the case of both films, both become successful if they tell you something new about something you think you know.” said AJ Schnack, founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for nonfiction filmmaking where these movies were recent winners,

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