By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
In the Academy’s defense, Mock insists that the documentary branch is constantly revising its guidelines to keep up with changes in the industry, and that more changes are on the way. "We certainly didn’t want our rules to handicap true rollout releases," she says. "So, under our new rules for the coming year, which haven’t been published yet, we’ve actually allowed for an exception to the blackout if your film has expanded to a certain number of markets."
Even if a documentary does qualify for an Oscar nomination, however, the battle hardly ends there — just ask Metallica co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Two of the best documentarians on the planet, Berlinger and Sinofsky found themselves embroiled in the original documentary Oscar controversy when their debut feature, the remarkable account of murder and dairy farming Brother’s Keeper (1992), failed to garner a nomination. In her investigation at the time, Hornaday referred to the film as "the Elijah at the Academy’s table," and it’s a seat Berlinger and Sinofsky have occupied many times over the ensuing years, as all of their subsequent work (including the two Paradise Lost documentaries, which have gone a long way toward sustaining the controversy around an Arkansas child-murder case) has gone similarly unrecognized by the Academy.
Back then, the co-directors did little to publicly conceal their disgruntlement. "But now I’ve gotten to know the process a lot better," says Berlinger, himself (along with Sinofsky) a new Academy member. "I have my analysis as to why it happened, but I no longer think it’s some conspiracy against well-reviewed, commercially viable dark movies, which is what I used to think."
"Not making the shortlist — believe me, it hurt almost as bad as Bush getting re-elected," adds Sinofsky. "I was depressed for a week, but then we got an Independent Spirit Award nomination, which in many ways is almost as good as an Academy nomination."
The key problem, as Berlinger sees it, is systemic: "The nominating process, despite having gotten infinitely better, still has a long way to go. There were 60 feature-length entries this year. They get divided into four groups of 15, and about 100 of the documentary-branch members agree to be divided into four screening groups. That means that only 20 to 25 people watch each group of the entries." At the end of the process, the screeners in each group rate the films on a scale from 6 to 10, with any film receiving an average score of 8.0 or higher advancing to the shortlist. Only these shortlisted films are then viewed by the full membership of the screening committee.
"The lack of consistency required to produce that shortlist is inherently flawed," says Berlinger. "My suggestion to the committee is that somehow more people, more peers need to watch all of the films. To me, even the shortlist is too short."
Which brings us to those titles that did make the 2004 Oscar shortlist. It’s anything but an undistinguished group, including a few audience favorites (Riding Giants, Super Size Me, Touching the Void and The Story of the Weeping Camel), some relative obscurities (Howard Zinn, Born Into Brothels) and several pictures (In the Realms of the Unreal, Tell Them Who You Are) that won’t go into wide release until 2005. Of the 12 contenders, I’ve so far seen eight and can say that none are less than good, a few are better than that, and at least one — Paola di Florio’s Home of the Brave, about slain civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo — is downright superb. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that, in many cases, these works strike me as triumphs of documentary content over documentary form, and that it’s hard to imagine there was ever really space on this list for Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, a kaleidoscope of tortured adolescence; Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a dyspeptic three-hour essay about Los Angeles and the movies; or Berlinger and Sinofsky’s chronicle of heavy metal rockers struggling to stay relevant.
"My observation is that when it comes to documentaries and those who judge them — not just the Academy — people put subject matter ahead of craft," says Berlinger. "In the dramatic arena, if a story is great but it’s poorly made, that film will get ripped to shreds. In the documentary arena, it’s different. That’s not saying that Fahrenheit or any other film is a bad film or poorly made, but I happen to think that people don’t care enough about craft when evaluating documentaries. And let’s face it, in terms of subject matter, a heavy metal band going through therapy might strike some people as frivolous."
For the Academy’s Mock, however, these long-running controversies boil down to a familiar bit of conventional wisdom: You can’t please all the people all the time. "Remember that under the old committee system, some of the best films were still nominated. What happens is that three out of five films everyone can agree on, and four through nine generate more widespread opinions. Of course, it’s all very subjective."
There, at least, is something everyone can agree on.
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