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Sunday’s Oscar Wins Continue to Bring Attention to Controversial Locations

Let’s give one last great round of applause to the Oscar winners last night. While the show itself was a tad dull, being the creators of a travel-guide series that tours you through the world’s most famous film locations, we were thrilled by the virtual global voyage the Academy Awards offered. while James Cameron’s “Avatar” picked up scores of awards for the look, feel, and sound of his revolutionary 3D special-effects spectacular, the winners in many other categories were all small-scale productions that made use of gritty real-life locations.

“The Hurt Locker”, which took home awards for “Best Director”, “Best Screenplay”, “Best Editing”, “Best Sound Editing”, “Best Sound Mixing”, and “Best Picture”, was ostensibly set in the arid, unwelcoming streets of Iraq. Naturally, as much as detail-obsessed director Kathryn Bigelow might have wanted to capture the true look of southern Iraq in her film, the cities there are rarely completely safe for native residents or U.S. forces, let alone a gaggle of production crew members and actors more familiar with how to survive in West Hollywood than to live in a war zone. Recent Iraq-war projects, like “Green Zone”, “Generation Kill”, “In the Valley of Elah”, “Home of the Brave”, “Stop-Loss”, and “The Situation” have all used Africa—and Morocco in particular—as a stand in for the sandy Middle Eastern nation. Instead of turning to that familiar film location or simply staying in North America by transforming Southwestern or Mexican deserts into Iraqi towns—as many U.S.-led projects have—”The Hurt Locker” brought its production to Amman, Jordan and Kuwait, two sites that not only had similar terrain as their neighbor, Iraq, but are also home to architecture and local populations far closer to those of Iraqis in terms of culture and racial makeup. For the most part, most of the recent Iraq War productions have steered clear of these countries, with only re-enactments from small-scale documentaries and Brian De Palma’s critically panned “Redacted” using either as locations for their outdoor action sequences. Bigelow thanked the citizens and the Royal Family of Jordan in her acceptance speech, underlining how a cozy financial relationship with a local film bureau in exactly the right place can pay huge dividends for a small-budget film. Expect to hear about more U.S. productions headed to both Jordan, Kuwait, and even possibly Iraq as the years go on. Don’t, however, expect to see “Hurt Locker” star Jeremy Renner returning to the area any time soon.
Jordanian officials probably jumped for joy when Tom Hanks announced that “The Hurt Locker” had beat out the odds-on favorite, “Avatar” for best picture. The residents of Taiji, the small, beautiful Japanese fishing village that lies at the center of the action in “The Cove”, however, were most likely infuriated when the film was named “Best Documentary” last night. For the last few years, Taiji has been the locus of a multi-international activist effort to stop the slaughter of dolphins in their secluded harbor. On top of individual and organized animal-rights protesters making trips to this out-of-the-way locale, residents, no matter their personal opinions on the practices that leave their shores red with blood, have had to contend with multiple documentary crews, journalists, and other outsiders invading what is essentially a very cloistered and private town with its own fiercely protected fishing culture. While the nod from the Academy and the ongoing popularity of “The Cove” may eventually bring the brutal killings to an end, they are also creating political, social, and economic frustrations for Taiji. The uncomfortable collision of traditional Japanese values with modern, global mores could prove cataclysmic for this beautiful town with a foundation built on some truly ugly customs.
“El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret of Their Eyes)” took home the award for “Best Foreign-Language Film”, the second time a film from Argentina has taken home the prize. The second-highest grossing film in Argentine box-office history, “”El Secreto” is a highly complicated murder mystery taking place during the reign of right-wing dictator Juan Perén. While Argentinians have made great pains to unearth and move beyond the political executions and assassinations of that era, this film brings countrywide case or fear and paranoia that the Perénists created back to life in living color. Set in the gorgeous Buenos Aires and the nearby sister city of Chivilcoy, American audiences should enjoy this trip through Argentina’s hectic 1970s as much as natives have prized it for its candor, noir style, and authenticity.
No doubt, the winner for “Best Documentary Short”, “Music by Prudence”, will be remembered for its bizarre acceptance speech in which one producer, Elinor Burkett, vaulted from the audience to steal the microphone away from producer/director Roger Ross Williams mid-speech. It’s too bad, because this tale of Zimbabwean musicians persevering in the face of discrimination, poverty, and personal physical disabilities shines light on the songs and personalities of a region often neglected by the world. The story of Prudence Mabhen is as harrowing as it is uplifting, offering an on-the-ground look at the best and worst of Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, and the mad, freewheeling music its citizens create. Hopefully, despite the monumentally awkward acceptance speech, this HBO doc will focus more attention on a glorious city that lies forever on the brink of complete chaos and an art form that expresses both the tragedy and triumphs of its home.
Our final favorite controversial movie location is Hollywood itself and comes from the “Best Animated Short” category. Sure, the long-form animated flick “The Princess and the Frog” was a charming romp through old New Orleans and “The Secret of Kells” looks to be an interesting tour of Medieval Ireland. But both lost to the pure fantasy of “Up” and neither of those hold a candle to the bright, explosive winner for “Best Animated Short”, “Logorama”. As we’ve explained before, this bite-size action flick not only sends up American pop culture with a deluge of corporate logos and mascots, but it skewers Los Angeles (both as it appears in movies and reality) in a way that probably hasn’t been matched since Robert Altman’s “The Player”, and that’s saying a lot.

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