Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow/'s /
Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures

(WOMENSENEWS)– The 2013 Oscar nominees will be announced today and many eyes will be on whether “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is in the running for Best Film.

In 2010 Bigelow became the only woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” and stirred controversy, in the process, about the paucity of award-winning female directors in Hollywood.

This year Bigelow is stirring controversy again for the subject matter of “Zero Dark Thirty” and showing, in the process, the power of film to blast a political issue into the cultural mainstream.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a truth-based narrative feature about the CIA’s tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden. As many who have been following this controversy know, it raises a question about torture: Was it or was it not needed and used to track down Bin Laden?

The film’s plot suggests it was, and that’s the source of much of the controversy about “Zero.”

In a December article for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer takes that premise to task. “Senators with access to the record say that torture did not produce the leads that led to finding and killing Bin Laden,” Mayer writes. Filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side” also deals with torture of prisoners, has commented similarly on the Huffington Post.

Anti-torture activists have used the film as a focal point. In Minneapolis, for instance, Women Against Military Madness is staging a protest to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center on Jan. 11, a date timed to coincide with the nationwide release of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Guantanamo isn’t specified in the film, but it’s a real-world prototype of the sort of “black sites” where operatives in the film are shown torturing captives.

In “Zero Dark ThirtyCIA interrogators are shown beating and water-boarding prisoners, depriving them of sleep, folding their bodies into fetal positions and stuffing them into sealed wooden chests, stripping them naked except for dog collars with leashes and making them crawl on the floor, and otherwise torturing and tormenting them to get them to spill the beans — after or while urinating or defecating on themselves.

Scripted by , the film focuses on the do-or-die determination of Maya, a CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain, to find Bin Laden’s hiding place and kill him. The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting an investigation into whether Bigelow or screenwriter Boal were given inappropriate access to classified information by their government contacts. (And if torture, in opposition to what has so far been officially said, was instrumental in producing valuable intelligence in the Bin Laden scenario.)

There’s little controversy though about whether “Zero” is well crafted. The highly acclaimed production is likely to receive Oscar nominations when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its roster today. The film has already garnered awards. On Jan. 7, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which I am the president, presented the film with numerous EDA Awards, including two for Bigelow.

Ursula Meier Up for ‘Sister’

Ursula Meier is another female director in play for an Oscar in 2013. Her narrative feature “Sisteris the official Swiss submission for Best Foreign Film, one of nine short listed films in that category, and the only one directed by a woman.

Written and directed by Meier, “Sister” is the moving tale of a working class adolescent, Simon (Kayce Mottet Klein), who winters at a posh Swiss ski resort, supporting himself and his older “sister” Louise, by stealing expensive ski gear from vacationers so rich they don’t even know it’s missing. Louise (Lea Seydoux) is a self-centered wild child whose affection Simon most desperately craves — for reasons that become clear as their story unfolds.

Meier’s restrained and observational storytelling style is galvanizing. Without introducing natural or manmade disasters into her narrative — no snow slides, no mangled ski lifts — Meier escalates dramatic tension. Deftly realized by the actors, the script is a mixture of playful circumstantial humor and deeply disturbing psychological revelations. Hopefully, Oscars buzz will boost “Sister” into a wide theatrical release, but even if it doesn’t, keep your eyes peeled for this film. It’s a masterful work of art.

Documentary Contenders

Three of the 15 films short listed for Best Feature Length Documentary have female directors.

For Alison Klayman‘s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” the first-time filmmaker secured unprecedented access to the charismatic Chinese artist and protest activist whose talent and imagination make him extremely entertaining, while his determination to defend his freedom of expression has turned his life into a series of dramatic and dangerous encounters with authorities. Ai has fans and followers worldwide. This film offers a fascinating portrait of the artist as activist and keen observation of the power of art to fuel social and political change.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady show extraordinary sensitivity for detail and the drama of daily life in “Detropia,” their exquisitely shot and brilliantly edited profile of once prosperous Detroit, the heartland city that now exemplifies U.S. urban decay. Following a union organizer whose constituents are rapidly losing their auto industry jobs, an activist blogger who contrasts past prosperity with current crisis and a team of young men who pillage abandoned buildings for copper piping they can sell to support their families, Ewing and Grady soulfully capture Motown’s moody blues.

Ewing and Grady also deserve kudos for forging the way — with “Detropia” — for independent filmmakers to self-distribute their productions, making them widely available to audiences who might otherwise not get to independent films that are not picked up and given theatrical runs by movie distributors.

In “Ethel,” filmmaker Rory Kennedy profiles and pays tribute to her mother, the feisty, fascinating and utterly charming Ethel Skakel Kennedy, now in her 80s and with a treasury of stories to tell about events that changed the course of history in small or monumental ways. As one might expect, Rory Kennedy has complete access to Ethel Skakel Kennedy, who has until now been notoriously circumspect about discussing her life story and personal opinions, and even now refuses to comment about aspects of her marriage to Robert F. Kennedy and the difficulties she faced in becoming the single mother of 11 children after RFK’s assassination. But the thoroughly engaging documentary provides rare insider glimpses of how the Kennedy clan has conducted itself during moments of triumph and tragedy, and Rory Kennedy’s love and respect for his mother shines through every frame.

I just wish more 2013 Oscar love were being directed towards women’s superb work in cinema, for films such as Sarah Polley‘s “Take This Waltz,” Andrea Arnold‘s “Wuthering Heights,” Cate Shortland‘s “Lore,” Julia Loktev‘s “The Loneliest Planet,” Ava DuVernay‘s “Middle of Nowhere” and
Maiwenn‘s “Polisse.”

Some mind-expanding documentaries that also seem slighted are Amy Berg‘s “West of Memphis,” Sarah Burns‘ “The Central Park Five,Lea Pool‘s “Pink Ribbon, Inc.” and Jennifer Baichwal‘s “Payback.” These have all been praised in my monthly Women’s eNews previews throughout the year.

Look to the Independent Spirit Awards, Cinema Eye Honors and awards presented by various critics groups to honor the fine productions ignored by the Oscars.

Meanwhile, release of 2013’s new films picks up in February, and we’ll be back with our regular movie preview at the beginning of next month.

In addition to covering film for Women’s eNews, writes about documentaries for She is a member of the prestigious Broadcast Film Critics Association and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, a nonprofit organization of the leading women film journalists in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

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