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November 20, 2007


stephen hopes

I totally agree with your assessment of the doc feature shortlist. Some incredible films missed out and some very boring cut and paste big issue films included. Please keep up the insightful articles, even hough, like a lot of filmmakers, you are probably feeling very disappointed by the whole rotten system. A dark day indeed.


I don't have a lot more to add . . . You've said everything worth saying. And while I'm usually able to enjoy the Oscars but not care too much about them, there's no denying that this is THE most visible platform for nonfiction films and a nomination can bring an otherwise unheralded film into dozens (if not hundreds) of theaters.

So, yes, a disappointing day for those who love the craft, the creativity, the storytelling and the cinematography of modern nonfiction films. That the Academy has little creativity of its own was already known - that they could miss so many easy marks is just pathetic.

Here's to burying the dinosaurs and dancing on their graves. . .

David Wilson
True/False Film Fest

p.s. There ARE great films on that list and to those directors, I offer my congratulations. This disappointment is not directed at any film or filmmaker - it's the bigger picture that frustrates me.

Sean Farnel

Thanks as always for all this AJ. Great information, though as somebody who watches hundreds of docs every year, I don't think this list is any more questionable than usual. Too bad it sullies deserving inclusions like NO END IN SIGHT (my pick from this group). Hopefully the final five includes the best of this suspect shortlist. Beyond the notable exclusions you mention, its a really a shame that this list is so thin on non-American productions.

Toby Leonard

Must be exceptionally frustrating in a year where many filmmakers with quality films like many of those you mention were forced to four-wall theaters at the last minute on non-preferable days and certainly non-preferable showtimes just to jump through the rings for something as deceptively simple as "qualification". Being that those rules have also been changed for next year (NY/LA only), what will that say for the rush of documentary filmmakers fighting over NY screen space which is already severely limited? Just a thought. Great post AJ

Toby Leonard
Belcourt Theatre


Thank you for writing so exceptionally engaged and emotionally involved in favor of the nonfiction-filmmaking craft. And at the same time you put forward an admirable rationality about this whole problem (well put in the above comment, david, about it being an issue about the bigger picture, not singular films.. I agree).

Being a foreigner I also miss more non-American films, but who are we kidding? I never expected much, so the inclusion of "Vote for me" was a great suprise - I loved that film (its very verité, yet also cinematic I think.).


I don't care if a doc was made for TV. Mulholland Drive and Elephant were made for TV and they're masterpieces. A risk film with an weird editing doesn't mean a good film as much conventional editing doesn't mean a conventional film. This is like music, sometimes I prefer traditional music like Marianne Faithful to music made for teenager like Cobain's music.
I know AMPAS doesn't have a history of good choices but your explanations didn't convinced me like that one with HBO prejudice.

Robert Wills

I totally agree with VHS. You are talking apples and oranges. Sometimes I like apples. Sometimes an orange hits the spot. Sometimes I might prefer the noble failure with high expectations. At other times the obvious success that squarely hit an easier target.


craft craft craft. I'm all for craft. I'd just like people to actually seem my film - which many have suggested is truly groundbreaking in terms of craft, BEFORE making these kinds of sweeping generalizations.


Richard Robbins
director, Operation Homecoming

bryan stamp

the only thing "non-American" about PLEASE VOTE FOR ME is the filmmaker and the subject; i realize those are 2 very significant variables, but considering the issue, I do not think this film is "non-American.” in fact, it's deliberately made easy to digest for Americans by ignoring the broader implications of experimetning with Democracy. The film is very entertaining, but light on socio-political and cultural commentary, and hardly enlightening or illuminating. Perfect for an American audience.


Finally! Someone has the guts to say it, especially pointing out Full Frame. That's why I will never submit my films to that festival, ever. Thanks, AJ. You've said what a lot of doc filmmakers have been discussing behind closed doors.


I remember when the Academy finally recognized Errol Morris (the reason I became interested in documentary filmmaking) in 2004. He said "I'd like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films. Thank you so very, very, very much! I thought it would never happen." At the time, I thought he was being cocky and arrogant. (And having seen him speak several times, I can't say he is not both of these.) However, his frustration at not having been recognized previously is completely fair. The fact that last year a filmed Power Point presentation (featuring a bold-faced name and huge box office numbers) won the award, proves AJ's point that the Academy only sometimes (seemingly begrudgingly) recognizes that documentary filmmaking is not limited to reconstructions - dry, sentimental, whatever - of historic events - but is truly an artform that illuminates and questions the truths and experiences of everyday life. I respect the hard work of each one of the filmmakers short-listed here, some more than others; but it seems the Academy chooses to downplay the very first definition of documentary, put forth by one John Grierson: "documentary is the artistic representation of actuality", rather than just a high school film strip waiting to happen.


I admit, your argument eventually swayed me away from my "sour grapes" first assumption of your post :)

It's a fact of life that AMPAS will always be about five years behind what's really relevant and "happening" in modern filmmaking. This happens all the time in every voting branch, even the short films: last year, Don Hertzfeldt's animated masterpiece "Everything will be ok", the most creative, envelope-pushing jaw-dropping best short film I've ever seen, failed to get nominated after making the shortlist. And the trash they nominated instead... don't get me started! And of course "Everything" then went on to win Sundance and a bazillion other awards. There's no accounting for taste.

But I also don't believe that there is a grand CONSPIRACY in the Academy against all the gutsier movies out there. The Academy is just old, and slow on the uptake. They'll catch up.

The lesson here is: Don't make movies for awards, or money, or for accolades. Only make movies for your audience - they're what's most important!


thx, AJ, for your very well written, thoughtful (and dare i say "angry" post). i agree with you on most points, and couldn't help but think that some of the docs must have been pushed forward by some very surreptitious and powerful forces. how else to explain the inclusion of RAPE OF EUROPA? the one thing that doesn't seem to make sense is the exclusion of IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, a seemingly sure-fire hit with the older AMPAS crowd. go figure.

AJ Schnack

Just a quick response to Richard Robbin's comment. I have seen OPERATION HOMECOMING and I am impressed by the risks that he took and the stylistic choices he made in the creation of that film.

I didn't say anything negative about Richard's film but I can understand his desire that he not be lumped with other efforts that haven't made similar attempts.


While I agree with AJ's general observations about AMPAS' tendencies, I do think that we need to be careful about lumping films into these 2 categories: A) conventional, issue-oriented works and B) well-crafted, artistic works. For example, "White Light/Black Rain" may look rather conventional on the surface, but I found it to be an extremely well-crafted film full of artistic decisions that enabled the filmmaker to tell the story of A-bomb survivors in a compelling and moving manner, all while avoiding the typical trappings of a didactic "message" film. Was it stylistically groundbreaking? No. But I thought it was an exemplary treatment of a story that, up til now, has only been dealt with in a preachy manner. The form was perfectly suited to telling this story the way it needed to be told. And for that, I thought it was an extremely successful film.


I worked on one of the 15 shortlisted movies and my honest appraisal would be that it's thoroughly mediocre.

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