Docs on the Rocks 

At Oscar time, many of the year’s best documentaries don’t stand a chance

Thursday, Dec 30 2004
Photo by Joe Berlinger

"In what has become a tribal ritual, accusations are again flying about the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film." With that line, critic Ann Hornaday began her New York Times article titled "Documentaries and the Oscars: No Cinderellas at the Ball." The date was March 14, 1993, and Hornaday was reporting on the peculiarities of a selection process that had consistently excluded many of the most acclaimed, groundbreaking and/or popular documentary films of the moment from its list of nominees. Many in the press — to say nothing of the overlooked filmmakers — were up in arms, accusing the Academy’s documentary screening committee of being at best antagonistic to innovation and at worst mired in corruption. (Around the time of Hornaday’s article, it was revealed that one documentary committee member was also a documentary distributor whose own films accounted for a suspiciously high percentage of the nominees.) And given the list of omissions — Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me — such allegations seemed more than a case of proverbial sour grapes.

Now flash forward 11 years. Responding to pressures both internal and external — and an ever-lengthening roster of high-profile non-nominees — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has instituted widespread changes to its documentary nominating process. Perhaps most significantly, an actual documentary membership branch has been created, meaning that nominees are now selected by the documentary filmmakers themselves, rather than (as under the old system) by a group of volunteers culled from all the Academy branches. Morris and Moore — as if anyone could have missed the latter — have finally been invited to the ball. Yet in a year that was widely hailed (as was 2003) as the Year of the Documentary, with nonfiction films playing in record numbers of theaters and to record attendance, the Academy’s recently published list of the 12 semifinalists for 2004’s best-documentary statuette suggests that all is still not well in the house of Oscar. Though the final five nominees won’t be unveiled until January 25, already out of the running are Control Room, The Corporation, Dig!, The Five Obstructions, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Tarnation and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession — in short, a veritable honor roll of the year’s most lauded movie achievements, documentary or otherwise.


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Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t in the running either, though that owes to Moore’s own decision to withdraw the film for documentary consideration and concentrate on a Best Picture campaign instead. Of course, there’s no Academy rule prohibiting a film from being nominated in both categories. There are, however, abundant regulations governing which films are eligible for a documentary Oscar in the first place. While both narratives and documentaries seeking Oscar eligibility must first play qualifying runs of at least seven consecutive days in at least one Los Angeles cinema, where documentaries are concerned that represents but the first step on the long and winding road toward hoped-for Oscar gold. As detailed in the Academy’s official rulebook (available in both pamphlet form and as a download on the Academy’s Web site), having cleared that initial hurdle, documentaries must then either open in theaters in four additional U.S. cities or, failing that, be withheld from television broadcast, anywhere in the world, until the day the Oscar nominations are announced. If a film is Oscar-nominated, it must be withheld from television for an additional nine months following the announcement. As for those films that do roll out to other cities, they too are prohibited from television airings, but only for a comparatively lenient nine months from the date of their first theatrical exhibition.

Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

Ostensibly, these rules were first deployed to protect and empower documentary filmmakers. As Academy documentary-branch governor Freida Lee Mock notes, "For a while, there were documentaries that simply did the minimum qualifying run without the spirit in which the rules were written — which is to qualify and then roll out, like most narrative films — and were on television the following Sunday night. And that undercut the vitality of our genre. There’s always been this distinction for the Academy, that their mission is supporting theatrical motion pictures, be they fiction or nonfiction. Our whole goal is to support the filmmaker." Yet, in 2004, the Academy’s television "blackout" rules were directly responsible for the disqualification of Control Room and The Corporation (both showed on international television within nine months of their U.S. theatrical premieres) before the Academy’s documentary-branch members ever had a look at them — something that Control Room director Jehane Noujaim doesn’t find particularly helpful or empowering.

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