Doc Talk: Do the Oscars Still Matter?

Doc Talk: Do the Oscars Still Matter?

Feb 22, 2012

Once again, as we near closer to another Academy Awards ceremony, people are asking the same old question: do the Oscars still matter? It’s a silly question by itself, because we must consider whether they’ve ever mattered, and if so to what extent. To address the debate in full would take a lot of thought and a tremendous amount of words. Fortunately for my sanity this column is specific to documentaries -- not that focusing on the Academy’s treatment of nonfiction films is anything but one of the most complicated topics associated with the Oscars.

The discussion has been especially heated this year following the snubbing of Steve James’ The Interrupters, one of the most acclaimed docs of 2011, and the subsequent -- yet not directly related -- announcement of changes to the nomination process for the Documentary Feature category (for which Academy doc branch representatives Michael MooreMichael Apted and Rob Epstein recently provided a handy FAQ to help us understand). Last month, the Academy Awards was the talk of the Cinema Eye Honors, which I found disappointing given that the Cinema Eye Honors exist in part so we doc fans don’t have to be so concerned with the Academy Awards.

At that event I found myself arguing with people about the significance of the Oscars for documentaries in this day and age. Most of the people, particularly the non-doc-obsessed, I know discovering great nonfiction films do so through streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu and either the recommendation components of these services or from social media acquaintances or via an increasing acknowledgment of docs on the various movie blogs and websites (including around the Internet. A lot of what’s watched and what’s popular is unrelated to what wins awards, including Oscars.

You could look at the sudden explosion of recognition given to Undefeated this week and believe it’s being influenced by its contention for the Academy Award, and to a degree it probably has received some greater notice for holding such status (and assumed prestige, I guess). However, the real factor involved is that it’s an attractive, accessible and affecting movie for mainstream audiences who have less preference, patience and approval for films about war, criminal justice, environmental activism and avant-garde dance.

Maybe fewer movie sites would acknowledge or review the film if it weren’t for the Oscar nomination, and this actually has more to do with traffic garnered by Academy Awards-related posts as it does the writers’ own personal interests, yet I think Undefeated could do just as well without the Academy’s stamp of approval provided it was given the right outlets and marketing necessary for exposure. Once the film hits Netflix Watch Instantly or cable, it really won’t matter if it won or lost, or even if it was shortlisted let alone nominated.

Documentaries don’t become more popular or wider seen because of an Oscar nomination. For every high-grossing documentary that was nominated for an Oscar (March of the Penguins; An Inconvenient Truth; Sicko and Bowling for Columbine are the only ones in the top ten), there are films like Street Fight, Twist of Faith, Gasland and The Garden, which went largely ignored in theaters (and also all those financially successful music and nature docs that don't get awards). And how often do the Oscar-nominated docs of the past get acknowledged let alone viewed because of the honor? Go through the list and you’ll find a great percentage of these films aren’t even available, in part because there’s little interest. It's no wonder that the Academy has in the past even toyed with getting rid of the documentary categories altogether. 

Likewise look at any critics list of the best documentaries ever made and you’ll find only a handful of Oscar nominees. When we think of the most important documentary filmmakers of all time, an Oscar nomination may have come late in their career if at all, and not for their best work. Others’ recognition may have come from outside the Documentary Feature category, with Robert Flaherty’s nomination being for writing, Steve James’ for editing, the Maysles’ brothers for Documentary Short. In James’ case, the fact that most people think Hoop Dreams wasn’t nominated for an Oscar at all is part of that film’s continued notoriety (the fact that it's a superb work that's also, like Undefeated, an accessible and affecting sports story is another part).

The primary defense I’ve received for why the Oscars still matter for documentaries is that the prestige of being called an Oscar nominee or Oscar winner apparently does have some lasting weight, to the effect that anyone from Errol Morris to Banksy to Morgan Spurlock to Lee Grant are referred to as Oscar winners for life -- and in death for their obituary and legacy sakes. Barbara Kopple has the honor of being “a two-time Oscar winner” in the rare case that terminology is even employed. But this is a semantic issue and such labels would bear no significance if neither the public nor the media gave the titles any actual or presumed weight.

So maybe it goes on the filmmakers’ resume and could therefore be helpful, especially to lesser-known directors, in the future. But while in theory that sounds right, it’s not necessarily the case. Take it from Marshall Curry, who received his second nomination in the Documentary Feature category this year for If a Tree Falls. His name may be more familiar since being nominated with his debut doc in 2006, but has the label benefited him beyond that?

“The nomination of Street Fight was very helpful, but not the same magic pixie dust that I think it is in the fiction world,” he tells me. “I feel like a nomination gets you in the door to pitch but doesn't get you the money. Since Street Fight I've been rejected from grants, rejected from festivals, etc., and I expect that'll happen again after Tree Falls. Making documentaries is just hard and there's no way around that.”

That isn’t to say Curry doesn’t appreciate his nominations, which he’s remarkably received for two out of only three documentaries he’s made.

“Without a doubt the nomination has been very helpful to me,” he adds, “and -- more important-- has attracted people to the films. The approval of Hollywood tells audiences that docs don’t have to be dull lectures-- they can be MOVIES, with plot twists and drama and humor and charismatic characters.”

I would love to believe this is true, and I guess it still was six years ago when I became aware of and rented Street Fight. It’s difficult if not impossible to adequately measure how many people will see If a Tree Falls or any other documentary based on its Academy Award status. But with such an amazing crop of docs in both the feature and short categories this year, I can only hope people see these ten incredible films whether or not it's because they were nominated. I also am optimistic that audiences may continue to embrace documentaries regardless of Hollywood's approval. 


I guess the Oscars do matter in so much as you’re all really just wondering what I think should win and what I think will win on Sunday evening. Without too much b.s. analysis or even critical reasoning, here we go:


What should win: Pina. I like all five films for various reasons and salute the Academy’s doc branch for seemingly picking works exhibiting quality storytelling over imperative issue awareness. Among the bunch, Wim Wenders’ 3D dance doc is the most forward-thinking and original in its craft and certainly the most cinematic.

What will win: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I think. Undefeated has been picking up steam as a favorite for the Oscar lately, in part because it was just released to theaters and has been in the media more. But I still trust that the majority of the doc branch will wish to celebrate a film (series) that has proven to be effective in producing real change.


What should win: Saving Face. In only forty minutes this film communicates a major women’s rights issue, explores the lives of multiple characters and tells an ultimately uplifting story of justice. I was immediately brought to feelings of sadness and anger and finally to tears of happiness and satisfaction. And I have to salute the brave women who allowed themselves to be documented in all their physical and emotional suffering.

What will win: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. I have a slight impulse to expect it’ll be God is the Bigger Elvis, since this doc spotlights one of the Academy’s own, actress-turned-nun Dolores Hart. But I have the biggest problems with Lucy Walker’s disaster-porn-turned-encouraging-metaphor treatment of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami aftermath, and after last year I believe my least favorite will again be the Academy’s choice.


Sticking to the question of whether or not the Oscars matter, my top pick for new theatrical releases in the next couple weeks is This is Not a Film, which isn't likely to be nominated for the Academy Award next year unless a lot of people rally behind it. Regardless, though, it's one of the best docs I've seen in many months and I expect it will be among my top ten of this year. The film begins as a simple video diary of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest awaiting appeal on a prison sentence and is also forbidden to write or direct movies, and it turns into a multi-faceted story of physical and creative confinement and the power and simplicity of cinematic protest, while also being the most affecting making-of doc about an aborted film project since Lost in La Mancha. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirthahmasb, this relatively short feature will surprise you with just how interesting and entertaining a film about one man in one space (plus an iguana, some garbage, a dog, fireworks and a script reading) can be. Opens in NYC on February 29. For my thoughts on other new releases follow my weekly Docs in Theaters column at the Documentary Channel Blog. 

As for home video releases, it's only appropriate that my top recommentation go to Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, a nominee for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar back in 1958, which remains a classic of nonfiction cinema more than 50 years later. This is a rare feat for documentaries and perhaps the fact that some of the film is fictional, clearly inspired by Italian neorealism and clearly influential to the work of John Cassavetes, who considered this to be the best doc ever made. I can't imagine this sort of hybrid would be recognized by the documentary branch today, but the fact that it's got that Oscar-nominated stamp likely does help in its appeal after all these years. The film is newly restored and now available on DVD and Blu-ray in a set that also includes Rogosin's 1964 anti-war feature, Good Times, Wonderful Time, and his 1957 UN-produced short, Out. This collection hit stores this week. For my thoughts on other new home video releases follow my weekly Docs on DVD column at the Documentary Channel Blog. 

I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

Categories: Documentary, Awards
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