Just three months ago, as filmmakers gathered at the Arclight Theatre in Los Angeles, the coming Oscar season seemed remarkably clear cut. There was already a front runner and a likely winner: David Sington's IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON.
In an ordinary year, the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to name a film like SHADOW to its Shortlist would be a fairly major story. But this year, it's but one film from a long list of omissions. Singularly, each film is a head scratcher, perhaps even a shock. Yet, each is also probably something that you could dismiss with a single line and a shake of the head. "I can't believe THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK isn't on that list" or "I kind of thought they'd skip over KING OF KONG, but still...".
But as word began to leak last week about which films had not been named to the Academy Shortlist and, later, which films had, emails and text messages and phone conversations flew with words like "sad", "disgusted", "appalled" and "abomination". The feeling of anger and despair was not based in the exclusion of a single film but in a whole group of films, many of which pushed creative and stylistic boundaries or marked the arrival of a major new talent.
Instead of recognizing a few of these films, the Academy - following in the footsteps of the IDA just days before - ignored nearly every single one of them. And in doing so, put the lie to a year's worth of bluster that the Academy only desired to nominate "truly theatrical films".
In one fell swoop, the Academy's decade-long campaign to repair its scandal-plagued 1990s reputation of nominating television-styled or extremely conventional films, was reversed. And, combined with the Academy's recent announcement that it will no longer require a theatrical rollout, made one wonder if the bad old days of Oscar are truly here again.
At this point, it's time for full disclosure. My own film, KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON, qualified this year under the Academy's rules. We were not Shortlisted. You can be excused if you can only view this commentary as a reaction to a personal rejection. If I say to you that I thought the odds ran against us being Shortlisted, that I am well aware of the Academy's tendency not to recognize films about popular music figures - or biographical films in general, and if you still think this is a major case of sour grapes, I can accept that.
But, longtime readers of this blog can hopefully attest to something larger in what I am write today. That here, in the midst of one of the most creatively exciting and expansive periods in nonfiction filmmaking, the Academy has made a choice between two kinds of filmmaking:
When presented with the following choice - do we prefer a competent, conventionally-styled film that maintains a even keel or do we prefer a film that swings for the fences, a film whose highs hit us in unexpected ways, even if it occasionally falters in its risk-taking - the Academy and the IDA have chosen to stand on the side of conventional and competent.
And when faced with a second, even more important, choice - do we favor issues and message or filmmaking craft - both the Academy and the IDA have answered resoundingly. Craft comes in dead last.
That's why there's not a single craft award at the longtime Full Frame Film Festival. Not a single craft award given annually by the IDA. Nothing for editing. Nothing for cinematography. Nothing for music. Nothing for direction. And when the IDA chose to bestow an one-time award for cinematography this year, who did they choose as a recipient? The longtime DP for Ken Burns. And when the IDA had the opportunity to give an award to an emerging filmmaker, did they tap Jennifer Venditti or Seth Gordon or Jason Kohn or Paul Taylor or the team of Sundberg and Stern? No, they went with a guy whose resume boasted a couple of basic cable productions, a position as assistant professor of screenwriting and a debut film that has received unimpressive reviews. But at least the film was about a serious subject.
Inside this realm, there's no room for a film like MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) or MY KID COULD PAINT THAT or BILLY THE KID or PROTAGONIST or KING OF KONG or WE ARE TOGETHER or DEEP WATER or MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES or JOE STRUMMER or any number of other films that took big risks or didn't tackle a sanctioned, serious subject or made films that wanted to be more than conventional approaches to the form.
That's not to say that every film on the Shortlist is an outrage, although there are those. Some were clearly never more than television pieces and rushed through their required theatrical release in order to get to their already scheduled date with cable TV. At least a handful are completely deserving - led by Alex Gibney's TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE.
But I was recently involved in looking at some of the documentaries of this year and when these films were narrowed down to a dozen or so, we had what I am convinced are truly the cream of 2007. And not a single film, not one, made it to the Academy's Shortlist.
That, my friends, makes today a dark day. And not dark for the loss of single film - a GRIZZLY MAN or a CRUMB or even a HOOP DREAMS - but for the cream of the year's talent and filmmaking vision. The Academy and the International Documentary Association have both chosen to pretend that much of the past year never happened, that the future is not here and that conventional and competent are good enough.
Who gives a shit, you may say. And you may well be right. Why should an artist of any stripe put focus and effort into the whims of organizations that have proven over time to be more interested in recognizing the right cause rather than the best filmmaking. I suppose its a little like whining when the American Music Awards doesn't do the right thing.
But this year doesn't seem like an oversight. It seems like a deliberate, purposeful choice. After all the hand-wringing over Oscar qualifying rules that mandated a true theatrical release, the Academy first reverses completely, eliminating requirements for a rollout and then names a Shortlist littered with films made by and for and of television.
It's as if the Academy's grand experiment to select only true theatrical releases has been called off.
At this point, I feel it necessary to call out one of the Academy's choices - the HBO financed, backed and already broadcast WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN, perhaps the most embarrassing film on the list, even if it is not the most surprising. Everything about the film - from its standard interviews with atomic bomb victims intercut with what clearly appears to be B-Roll footage of the subjects walking around in their neighborhoods on the same day as the interview - is borrowed from the oldest trappings of the interview/B-Roll/archival documentary form. It is filmmaking at its most conventional and competent.
Forget the fact that it never had a theatrical bone in its body. Can anyone, seriously anyone, make a case that WHITE LIGHT is a better film than KING OF KONG on any level? Better than MANDA BALA? Better than BILLY THE KID? Better than PROTAGONIST? Better than any of the films named above? Better filmmaking? More of a challenge? More successful? Or is it just the so-called seriousness of an atomic bomb story? Is it just "more important"?
We have come to a crossroads in documentary once again. Those of us who are the children of Morris and Moore and Zwigoff and Pennebaker and Maysles and Reggio have seen it happen to our elders and mentors, filmmakers whose best work was often ignored by their peer groups because it played with form or tackled less "important" topics.
But supposedly these peer groups had learned a lesson. They would become more open. They would bring in new blood. They would recognize the filmmakers they had previously shunned.
Yet, given the chance, at the height of a new wave of documentary filmmaking, the Academy and the IDA closed their eyes, their ears, their doors. And now, one must look to organizations like Film Independent and their Spirit Awards to somehow close the gap between craft and recognition/encouragement.
And one must look to a new body, be it the American Film Institute or some consortium of festivals or some brand new organization to stand up for, to recognize filmmaking craft, to support innovation and risk-taking. To say damn what is important, damn the issues, we stand with artists.
And we need film critics to dig down deep within themselves and write about films from the perspective of the filmmaking, not on whether or not a subject is worthy or important. You need to learn to write about the art of making nonfiction as much or more than you write a summary of the events that transpire in the documentary.
This year, the Academy and the IDA stand on tired notions of righteous causes. They, along with organizations such as Full Frame, believe that nonfiction exists first and foremost to shine light on the great issues. And while the social justice tradition has and always will (and should) exist in nonfiction, many of us believe in nonfiction filmmaking as more than a teaching tool, as something that can be entertaining, as something that can be artistic, as something that can push stylistic boundaries, as something that can reveal the human condition, as something that can be as rival narrative as a filmgoing experience.
In that is the craft of filmmaking.
It was a bad day for documentary. And while the anger was just and the sadness was real, we should not waste time in despair. Because the future of nonfiction is to stand with artists.
And the future is now.Update - January 7, 2008: From this post, a groundswell of support within the documentary community has led to the announcement of a new award for nonfiction filmmaking. You can read the initial news, see our inaugural shortlist and read how we got from this commentary to today's announcement.