Movies

What’s up in the Oscars documentary categories?

Once restricted and ignored, the best documentary category is now wide open and widely respected

A scene from Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”

A scene from Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”

When the best documentary feature category comes up during the Oscar broadcast on Sunday, many viewers across America will head for the bathroom or the refrigerator.

Traditionally, this has been a contest between films few have seen – sometimes not even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members voting for them. Often the subjects – war, injustice, guilt, genocide, environmental despoliation – are realities viewers would rather avoid. Plus, the category usually inspires some of the lengthiest and least scintillating acceptance speeches.

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But as notions about what a documentary film can be have expanded, interest has increased. And increasingly, if begrudgingly, the Academy has acknowledged these changes.

The category was established innocuously enough in 1943, in the midst of World War II. Of the 25 nominees (not a typo), most were about the war, as were all four of the winners (again, not a typo). Was the category Hollywood’s contribution to the war effort, a pageant of propaganda to keep up spirits on the home front? Suffice to say that in 1946, no documentary award was given.

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The years that followed mostly honored placid pictures safe for a high school classroom, ranging from “Kon-Tiki” (1951) to “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (1971). During the short-lived New Hollywood of maverick directors, the counterculture exerted influence on the documentary category. Accepting the award for Peter Davis’s anti-Vietnam War doc “Hearts and Minds” (1974), the producer Bert Schneider read a congratulatory telegram from the Viet Cong.

But as the nation swung right under Reagan, so did the Academy. Or maybe it didn’t swing at all. For about a decade and a half, the best documentary nominees and winners were notable more for the films that were ignored. Those snubbed would make an excellent recommended viewing list for a course in documentary film.

After a while, people started asking questions. Who was making these decisions? Did they have conflicts of interest? Did they even watch the movies? The system had all the transparency of the Golden Globes.

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When Steve James’s popular “Hoop Dreams” (1994) didn’t even score a nomination, Roger Ebert was indignant. The critic decried a shoddy nomination process dominated by a small clique that championed one film and squeezed out the competition. An in-depth Entertainment Weekly exposé confirmed Ebert’s charges. (Perhaps the Oscar snubbing of “Life Itself” James’s 2014 film about Ebert’s final days, was the Academy’s long delayed payback.)

Though the Academy vowed improvements, Wim Wenders’s popular “The Buena Vista Social Club” lost in 2000 in an upset to the unknown “One Day in September.” Arthur Cohn, the producer of “September,” would later boast, “I won this without showing it in a single theater!”

Has the nomination and award system improved any since? Certainly the films have delved into edgier content. When Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” about the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, won last year, it scarcely raised an eyebrow.

But what about style? What about films that challenge established genre conventions? Has the Academy gotten any less conservative than in 1989, when it wouldn’t even consider Errol Morris’s brilliant “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) because of its inventive use of re-enactments? Or in 1990 when it resorted to red tape to disqualify Michael Moore’s rollicking, taboo-busting, and very popular “Roger & Me” (1989).

Perhaps. After all, they did award an Oscar to Morris in 2004 for his provocative if less subversive “The Fog of War,” and to Moore in 2003 for his seemingly more respectable “Bowling for Columbine.”

Perhaps they eventually learn from their mistakes.

This year the nominees may be the most ambitious yet, both in content and in form. Two nominees — “Amy” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — expose the kind of gender and racial inequality in the music business that Hollywood is beginning to confront in the film industry. “Cartel Land” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” demonstrate how documentaries can serve as powerful investigative journalism.

As notions about what a documentary film can be have expanded, interest has increased.

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But Joshua Oppenheimer’s savagely brilliant “The Look of Silence” should prove the real challenge. His previous film, “The Act of Killing,” about mass murder by death squads in Indonesia was nominated but did not win two years ago. This second in a diptych on the subject might have a chance. The two films together expose a terrible crime, while also dissecting the medium by which it is being exposed. They have brought change to Indonesia and to the way people look at and watch documentaries.

By any measure, that’s progress.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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