Documentary and the Oscars

I don’t have time to write a full response to the ongoing debate about the changes in the Academy rules guiding the nomination process for documentary features, but the discussion speaks not only to the increasing prominence of documentary films in the public sphere but also the technological changes that are altering how motion pictures are distributed and exhibited. For now, I just want to map some of the key arguments in the debate, and hopefully, when I have some of that mythical free time, I’ll come back to these discussions.

As A.J. Schnack, whose Kurt Cobain doc I’ll be seeing this weekend, points out, the documentary category has long provoked heated (often political) debate, especially during a stretch in the 1980s and ’90s where a number of worthy and memorable films either failed to receive nominations or lost to other documentaries under suspicious circumstances (most famously, Roger & Me, The Thin Blue Line, Buena Vista Social Club, Four Little Girls, and Hoop Dreams). Schnack helpfully points to Carl Bromley’s 2001 Nation article, which focuses primarily on Wim Wenders’ disappointment at losing out to Arthur Cohn’s One Day in September, a documentary about the killing of several Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. Wenders’ complaints don’t take into account that One Day in September is actually a pretty compelling film, but Bromley’s article highlights the widespread position that the documentary committee often treated the genre like “cinematic Castor oil.” These complaints ultimately led to rule changes in 2003 that, Schnack suggests, may have finally helped documentary auteur Errol Morris finally win an Oscar for The Fog of War (the rules included an expansion in the number of cities where a film must play before being considered for a nomination).

The new changes in 2006 include a further strengthening of the number of cities in which a film plays (AJ has the details, and you can also see them in the Academy’s press release), which has led to a number of complaints from the documentary community, including this letter from Iraq in Fragments producer John Sinno, in which Sinno asserts (probably incorrectly) that Iraq in Fragments would not have qualified for a nomination. Worth noting: Sinno’s letter also complains about Jerry Seinfeld’s jokey introduction to the documentary category, a performance I found inoffensive but not terribly funny.

I do think some of the changes, including a relaxation of the technical standards, will make getting a nomination both cheaper and easier for filmmakers and show an awareness that interesting films can be made and distributed on a modest budget. And the Academy has wisely made a concession to films funded by “television entities,” narrowing the window between initial theatrical exhibition and TV broadcast considerably, with films now required to wait only 60 days after they have completed their rollout requirement.

At any rate, a few of the other key articles and blog entries in this discussion include: Agnes Varnum’s “Doc Oscar Rules Continued,” Sasha Stone’s “Acad Docs in Fragments,” Nikki Finke’s DHD piece, and Bilge Ebiri’s “Documentaries in the Oscar Ghetto.” More later, hopefully, but again, I think a lot of these questions come back to some interesting debates about changing technical standards and viewing contexts for documentary films. I think it also speaks to the increasing relevance of documentary filmmaking as a practice.

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