The Academy Still Loves Newsy Documentaries

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 10 2013 1:02 PM

The Academy Still Loves Newsy Documentaries

surviveaplague
Peter Staley in a still from How To Survive a Plague

After another overhaul of the voting process, hand-wringing over what films qualify (and how), and a 15-film shortlist that was one of the strongest and most diverse in recent memory, this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary once again reflect an all-too-familiar conception of documentaries as feature-sized cinematic vessels of reportage. As usual, it’s all about the issues.

You’ve got your first-person Palestinian nonviolent activist film (5 Broken Cameras), your polyphonic interrogation of Israeli intelligence officers (The Gatekeepers), your chronological archival account of the fight against AIDS (How to Survive a Plague), and an investigation into the prevalence of rape in the American military (The Invisible War). Even the lone outlier, Searching for Sugar Man, takes the form of a deep-digging investigation, smartly trading in revelations that have been publically available for 15 years.

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Just because these are predictable choices, though, doesn’t mean that they’re not strong ones. While I suspect newsworthiness was a crucial factor in the voting process, these are mostly films that transcend the genre of “issue docs,” and approach their stories without the usual talking-head or agitprop playbooks. 5 Broken Cameras is essentially a home movie shot in the world’s most embattled homeland, and How to Survive a Plague is entirely archival in its visual presentation—a patchwork of surviving footage that adds up to a staggering story of resistance. Even The Gatekeepers, which is heavily dependent on interviews, is less of an exposé than a collective reckoning, more collaborative confessional than Mike Wallace-style gotcha journalism.

For those of us who’d like to see the Academy recognize the full breadth of documentary filmmaking, which is in the midst of a true golden age, these nominations represent a mixed blessing. They’re strong films—stronger, as a quintet, than the nominees of previous years. But this year’s 15-film shortlist was even stronger still, and the boldest of those movies didn’t make the final cut. Was the singularly stunning Detropia too textural, too subtly associative? Was The Imposter, perhaps the best made documentary of the year, too “dark,” too unresolved, too frank about the ickiness of humanity? Was This Is Not a Film too… I don’t know, fall-on-the-floor-weeping-at the-injustice-and-improbable-beauty-of-it masterful?

It’s a shame that these films didn’t get nominated, but at least they were considered. Before this year, the shortlist was chosen via the piecemeal voting of small committees within the 170 odd (and largely anonymous) member branch, meaning that the fate of films was decided by the fickle feelings of a handful of unknown people. This year the whole branch got a crack at selecting the shortlist, and the difference was marked. Sure, there were some surprising snubs, including some higher profile films like The Queen of Versailles, The Central Park Five, and West of Memphis. But there were also some shockingly good films that were chosen, particularly the aforementioned Detropia and This is Not a Film.

Michael Moore helped bring about these changes, and he expressed gratitude for their implementation last night. “I thank all of you who are Academy members for participating in our first ever totally democratic vote for the Oscars this year,” he said to those gathered for the Cinema Eye Honors, an indie doc awards program, at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Moments later, Moore accepted the night’s top prize on behalf of the absent co-directors of 5 Broken Cameras. Compared to last year’s Cinema Eye ceremony, which was created to recognize the spectral artistry of documentary film—serving, really, as an Oscar corrective, or at least a gap filler—the confluence and improved mood was notable. Last year, top Cinema Eye winner The Interrupters had been snubbed from even the Oscar shortlist, and not a single film nominated for Best Nonfiction Feature at Cinema Eye received an Oscar nomination. (Only one was even on the shortlist.) This year? Four out of the six Cinema Eye nominees were on the shortlist, and two have been nominated for the Oscar (Searching For Sugar Man and 5 Broken Cameras).

So whether or not the Academy still votes for documentaries with headlines in mind, some of the best examples of the art form are at least sneaking into competition. Whether you think they stand a chance of actually winning will depend on your faith in—to accept Moore’s terminology—democracy. With the whole Academy voting for the top doc this year, it seems inevitable that momentum, popularity, and publicity will be more relevant matters than artistry—or even journalism. It will, in other words, be a bit like some other democracies I can think of.

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