Institutionalizing Documentary

One of the most salient points in Patricia Aufderheide’s Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (my review) is the argument that film scholars should be more attentive to the business of documentary, including the institutions that support documentary filmmakers and the economies in which documentaries circulate.   And because of conversations both in the blogosphere and at documentary festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs, I’m inclined to agree.  In a blog post on the Oxford UP blog, Aufderheide describes, in the context of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, the ways in which docs are increasingly becoming “big business” for a number of social and technological reasons, including new distribution channels/networks and docu-auteurs such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (filmmaker and blogger A.J. Schnack seems slightly less sanguine here).  In this sense, the role of festivals and awards in shaping the reception of documentary (even our access to certain kinds of docs) needs to be considered more carefully.

I mention Aufderheide’s post in part because I’ve been looking for an excuse to discuss A.J. Schnack’s ongoing discussion of a new set of awards for documentary filmmakers, launched by “a coalition within the nonfiction and film festval community” and supported by IndiePix, a prominent film distributor.  These awards are designed to counter the Academy’s often confusing qualification rules (which have led to a number of eminent films, including The Thin Blue Line and Hoop Dreams, being disqualified from consideration).  A.J.’s frustration with the “Academy’s byzantine and oft-changing rules” is well-documented, and creating a more reasonable and equitable approach to highlighting the best in non-fiction filmmkaing is much needed.  But A.J.’s comments also underscore the need to acknowledge that documentary production, like feature filmmaking, is a craft.  In proposing these new awards, A.J. seeks to reward docs that “pushed creative and stylistic boundaries or marked the arrival of a major new talent.”  Instead of merely rewarding the “best” documentary of the year, these awards would also recognize the craft of documentary filmmaking by highlighting seven additional categories including Direction, Production, Cinematography, Editing, Graphic Design & Animation, International Feature and Debut Feature.

Like a number of other bloggers, I think there is quite a bit to debate here. Is this shortlist significantly different than the Academy’s?  In other words, aren’t omissions inevitable when trying to encapsulate a genre as diverse as documentary?  What gets lost by possibly emphasizing “craft” over “message” (and I realize these categories are not mutually exclusive)?  I do think these are important questions, though many of them can be answered as the awards evolve.  But in general, I appreciate the attempt to recognize that documentary entails a craft of “representing reality” and not merely recording it.


  1. Pat Aufderheide Said,

    January 9, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

    Thanks, Chuck, for putting meat on the bones of this debate. I think it’s really important to establish awards that highlight the craft of documentary. Not only do documentary awards often reflect the perceived importance or impact of the subject, they often also reflect a tendency toward the sentimental, especially evident when the subject is disability, the very poor, animals…The more we can openly discuss craft, the more we can discuss the techniques that create sentimental engagement, activism, high-quality discussion and other responses that show the film made a difference to people. And then, oh yes, we could link the discussion of aesthetics to ethics!

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 9, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

    A.J. Obviously deserves a lot of credit for building the momentum on this issue. I do think that awards–particularly the Oscars–tend to emphasize sentimental content over well-crafted documentaries. And, in turn, the emphasis on the sentimental can obscure the very questions you’re raising about how cinematic techniques operate on audiences (which, in turn, reinforces a certain kind of politics and/or ethics).

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Cinema Eye Nominees Said,

    January 20, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

    […] direction, editing, and graphic design. As I mentioned a few days ago, I think these awards are a pretty cool idea, in that they recognize the importance of craft and storytelling in creating good documentaries. It […]

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