The Thin Gold Line: The Oscar Doc Race

Posted by Zachary Mandinach on 12.3.2012


Albert and David Maysles' Salesman, one of the many classic documentaries that went unrecognized by the Academy Awards.

UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has released the 15-film shortlist for this year's Best Documentary Feature award. The shortlisted films are:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, HRWFF '12)
Bully (Lee Hirsch)
Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, Mountainfilm '12)
Detropia (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing)
Ethel (Rory Kennedy)
5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi, ND/NF '12)
The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh, NYFF '12)
The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki)
How to Survive a Plague (David France, ND/NF '12)
The Imposter (Bart Layton)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, HRWFF '12)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, NYFF '11)
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks)

For those who miss talking about eligibility, reform, nominations, and gaffes now that the election's over, don’t fret: it’s time to start debating the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature!

In the coming weeks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce its shortlist of potential nominees for the coveted award. For decades, the Oscar for the best documentary film of the year has been the subject of much contention within the film community, partly because of its track record. It wasn’t until 1949, thirteen years after the first Oscars were handed out, that a category was devoted to documentary films, and with that late start came a misunderstanding of quality films. Going over the list of films that have won this prestigious award over the years is a frustrating and flabbergasting experience. For example, in 1960, the year Robert Drew’s Primary made its debut, a film called The Horse with the Flying Tail won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film is a Disney picture centering on a palomino horse that won the gold medal at the 33rd Pan American Games. On the other hand, Primary has gone on to be selected for the National Film Registry and is seen as a timeless piece due not only to its depiction of American politics and the fervor surrounding then-Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy, but also because of its being one of the earliest examples of direct cinema, with some of the movement's central figures—Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock—working with Drew on the film.


Steve James' Hoop Dreams (NYFF '94)

Suffice to say that these filmmakers, their contemporaries, and protégés were and have been largely ignored by the Academy. Even in 1994, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, widely believed to be one of the greatest documentaries of all time, was left out of contention for the prize that year. This snub led to a campaign for a revote, but the film was still left out in the end. Such contentious reactions have only increased in recent years with the overwhelming growth of documentary film culture, which has allowed for hundreds of films to be in contention each year. Documentary-only film festivals have sprouted up around the globe in an effort to raise awareness of lesser-seen films as well as simply provide a chance for these films to qualify for the Academy Awards.

But, to keep such a massive wave of films from being put in front of the Academy members, Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentarian and Chairman of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, put a change in place last January. The new eligibility clause requires films have at least a week-long run in either New York City or Los Angeles, and be reviewed by one of the major newspapers of those two cities. This certainly helped limit films that have strictly been shown on the festival circuit, have had one-off screenings, or had their debuts on television and not in theaters.


Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell

The core of this problem, it would appear, are the methods of distribution and exhibition for documentaries. With most films barely turning a profit, if at all, many films fall through the cracks without having any theatrical audience beyond those who are lucky enough to see them at film festivals. This leaves filmmakers with no choice but to seek other routes of exhibition, such as PBS or HBO (which houses some of the best docs in past years, such as Peter Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon). The result is a field of Oscar nominees to be heavily dominated by studios with enough financial stability to release a documentary in theaters and provide the push—and cash—these films need to be seen or heard about by the general public (and Academy members).

In a recent article from Deadline, Peter Hammond reported that the problem of too many awards season screeners has persisted this year despite the new rules. Even films that have distribution such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which wowed audiences in recent festivals at Telluride and Toronto, have been set aside until next year due to the emphasis on publicity for the film instead of "quietly qualifying it at an outlying theater as was the custom in recent years." The continued frustration has left Moore to reconsider, or remove, the eligibility requirements altogether, thus opening the doors for any and all documentaries.


Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's Detropia 

With only fifteen films selected to the shortlist of potential nominees, there’s bound to plenty of disappointment. This year has been chock-full of high quality documentaries, from more widely-seen fare such as Searching for Sugar Man, to Detropia, a film self-released by its two co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Those two films are near guarantees to be mentioned on the shortlist. 

The remaining thirteen slots are much more uncertain. You might see The Imposter, Bart Layton’s investigative work on a mysterious missing child case in the early 1990s. Many are sure to be disgruntled by the possibility of the shortlist forgetting Bully, one of the most hotly debated documentaries from earlier this year and one with a highly passionate following. Some films have yet to be seen by the general public, such as Ken Burns' The Central Park Five, which will close DOC NYC this Thursday. Hopefully there will be much-deserved recognition for festival films such as Tchoupitoulas, a New Orleans-based doc on three young boys’ escapades throughout one night in The Crescent City (set to be released next month), or How to Survive a Plague, a Sundance Film Festival and New Directors/New FIlms favorite centering on the work of AIDS activism group ACT UP.

Whatever happens, we should keep in mind that the Oscars wouldn’t be the Oscars without a healthy, sometimes maddening dose of snubs, specifically in the documentary category. But since it's that time of year, let us be thankful, or hopeful, that those films lucky enough to see the light of day in the darkness of a movie theater will be judged on their merit alone.

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