It’s time for the Academy Awards again and, as usual, most media outlets list the Best Documentary category below Best Achievement in Visual Effects and Best Animated Short Film. And even though documentaries have risen in popularity and commercial value, it’s also true that, despite significant changes, the Academy still treats nonfiction films like an ungrateful stepchild. Before the 1990s, or perhaps even the 21st Century, the selection process for Academy Award documentaries was often accused of being obscure, hostile to innovation, off the radar and even on occasion, of being corrupt (rumors flew at one point of a committee member who stacked nominations with films his distribution company represented). In the early decades of the Awards the nominations were often filled with war films produced by the United States government, Navy and Air Force. In recent decades folks finally started a hullabaloo when films like Hoop Dreams, Shoah and Roger & Me failed to garner nominations. The lack of a nomination for Hoop Dreams actually led to a major renovation of the selection process in the mid-90s, when Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story about the selection process for docs, revealing that most of the people voting were not documentary filmmakers and actually worked against getting the film nominated, even though the film was widely praised. As it turns out, the old system was simply a group of volunteers from the all the Academy branches, a clique that chose accordingly.
These days the Documentary Branch Screening Committee is made up of documentary filmmakers but is still on a volunteer basis. Yet due to the selection process and specific rules that only apply to docs, the Academy still doesn’t give nonfiction its fair due (the Academy even tried to ax the Documentary Short category but reversed this due to organized outrage). In part this is because nominations are partly compromised by rational, yet unrealistic, rules regarding TV broadcasts. For example, in most cases films in the vying must be withheld from broadcast anywhere in the world until nominations are announced and then held from TV for an additional nine months following the announcement, a restriction that often goes against the requirements of international co-producers, i.e. TV stations, that more often than not are crucial to getting a film made. That’s why much lauded and successful films like Control Room- and _The Corporation didn’t get consideration last year. Another rule is that to vote on Best Documentary an Academy member has to see every one of the final films. Sounds fair enough but because many times the films have not been released (or been on TV, obviously) and, therefore, are inaccessible, but the system can be easily manipulated so that screenings are few and far between for one particular film and the handful of members that see it can skew the vote tremendously (this is what some say happened in the 2000 Awards when the relatively obscure One Day in September beat out the popular Buena Vista Social Club).
While in theory a documentary can get nominated for a number of the technical categories that are most always associated with fiction films, this is hardly ever the case (though, as an anomaly, Hoop Dreams did win for Best Film Editing). So, even though docs are probably more of a true collaborative effort than many fiction films, there’s still only the one category for them. After all, Hollywood is a fiction town and the more complicated (and money making) the production, the more careers a film sustains, thus making Academy members very happy. In addition, besides the complicated nature of the voting process for docs, critics and filmmakers have pointed out in years past that the documentary category has always seemed like it was the guilty conscience of Academy members who voted on the content of the film rather than its skill or entertainment value. It’s hard to say that’s such a bad thing when this year’s finalists include a film about penguins but none about Iraq. At the same time more obscure yet excellent films like Darwin’s Nightmare and Street Fight did make it. But no matter what film wins it will not get nearly the kudos that a lesser fiction film would from Hollywood and, because of the strange rules and process of the Academy, it may even be seen by some as inherently tainted.
Our Brand Is Crisis
(opens March 1st at Film Forum)
These days, wannabe presidents of developing nations might think twice about hiring political consultants from Washington, DC. But recently, as deftly and entertainingly shown in Rachael Boynton’s film about the lead-up to the presidential elections in Bolivia, it was par for the course to get high-paid Yanqui consultants to create the image and the message in order to get rich status quo politicians elected (or reelected in this case) in Latin America. The spinmeisters often come across like modern William Walkers, espousing the Manifest Destiny of open-market democracy. Unfortunately for them, the Beltway Boys (including James Carville) who are trying to sell their candidate as someone who can handle crisis, end up helping create one.
(Opens February 24th at the Quad Cinema; broadcast on PBS on April 11th)
Other than stories about casinos on Indian reservations, there’s not that much media out there around important issues and characters in the modern Native American scene. Here’s one, and while it is a hagiography, it does cover an important figure, John Trudell, who was a major figure in the American Indian Movement. Trudell felt the trials and tribulations of political activism and moved into poetry, music and hanging out with celebrities. The film could benefit from being more critical, but in a time when many anti-immigrant white residents call themselves native, it’s good to see a real American speak his mind.
New Directors/New Films
(MoMA, March 22nd-April 2nd)
A staple of New York cineastes, this year ND/NF introduces a new program, “ND/NF Classics,” that looks back at important documentaries that premiered at the festival over the last decades including Stephanie Black’s H-2 Worker (1990), Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984), and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996).