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the oscars

Martyn Burke

A Canadian film about the harrowing experiences of war correspondents has made the short list of 15 documentaries in the running for an Oscar.

Under Fire: Journalists in Combat traces the psychological and emotional toll faced by eight war correspondents and photographers from major news organizations including the Toronto Star, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

It's written and directed by Toronto's Martyn Burke, whose extensive credits range from writing the 1984 comedy Top Secret! to directing and producing the documentary Idi Amin: My People Love Me.

Burke said Wednesday he was shocked to make the prestigious list, largely because he scrambled to finish his feature in time for academy consideration.

Speaking from his L.A. office, Burke said voting on the short list closed Nov. 14 and his film began screening for L.A. critics and academy members just three days earlier.

"Until (that) Friday, we were to all intents and purposes a little documentary channel film that was trying to be a bigger film," said Burke, who notes the project started out as a one-hour special for CBC's specialty digital channel dedicated to documentaries.

Burke said he began filming in January and only realized he had enough for a feature-length film with Oscar prospects in August.

The problem then was getting DVD copies to academy members as required by Sept. 15 and securing required week-long runs in New York and Los Angeles before the end of the year.

Ideally the screenings would take place before short list ballots were due on Nov. 14, but Burke said the earliest he could book an L.A. theatre was Nov. 11 – Veteran's Day in the United States.

Reviews out of that screening were phenomenal and that's where the real Oscar campaign started, he said.

"We were really up against the wall on that," Burke said of the tight timeline.

"They would only have a few days to see the film. So that was the surprise for us. And it was surprising, too, because you had some of the major names in film like Werner Herzog and the big documentary guys like Errol Morris (ignored by the short list)."

Still, Under Fire faces stiff competition from film giants including Wim Wenders' 3D dance film Pina, the Sundance winner Buck, and Oscar-winner James Marsh's Man on Wire follow-up, Project Nim.

Under Fire is also bound for a qualifying run for Canada's Genie Awards in December. Burke expects it to get a wider Canadian and U.S. theatrical release in the new year.

The film gathers footage from Canada, United States, England, west Africa, Afghanistan and Libya and offers a revealing look at the dangers of covering a war zone, he said.

"It is almost more dangerous than being a soldier because as one of the people in the film says, it's no longer news if a soldier is killed but if a reporter is killed in battle then it's a big story," he says.

"Whoever the enemy is knows this and so reporters are often targeted a lot more than soldiers are. And they're kidnapped and held for ransom or killed or executed like Danny Pearl."

The short list will be whittled down to five nominees Jan. 24. The 84th Academy Awards will be handed out Feb. 26.