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Controversy rages over Oscar docs list

By Clive Whittingham 20-12-2011

Who won the Documentary Feature Oscar in 1994? Answer: A Strong Clear Vision by Maya Lin. A fine piece of work but not the doc that everybody remembers the 1994 Academy Awards for.

In fact, 1994 was the year of Hoop Dreams, a film by Steve James that wasn’t even nominated. The decision to snub the story of budding high school basketball players from inner city areas is remembered and lamented to this day. Robert Ebert at the Sun Times blog, one of the film’s main champions, offers the best summary of why that is.

The decision sparked such controversy that the way films are picked and nominated was changed, but the committee that picks the 15 films for consideration from a shortlist of around 200 is still known for its apparently nonsensical snubs – and this year is no exception.

James finds himself ignored again this year (he must be wondering what he’s done to upset the Academy), as his film The Interrupters, about former gang members working to stop violence in inner city Chicago, failed to make the list. Maverick German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has a single 2008 nomination and no victories to his name, also misses out despite his death-row doc Into the Abyss earning critical acclaim.

No nomination either for Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a profile of Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. There was some suggestion prior to the announcement that as the film was almost entirely made up of television archive footage of Senna in action that it wouldn’t be eligible. Filmmaker James Moll, a member of the Academy’s Documentary Branch Executive Committee told Realscreen prior to the announcement that this was not the case. But then the film was ignored anyway.

Patrizio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light also missed out, along with Errol Morris’s Tabloid.

As Reuters pointed out, that meant the only film nominated for top honours by both the International Documentary Association and the Cinema Eye Honors had missed out, while only one film nominated by either, Project Nim, made the cut. Senna won at Sundance but wasn’t deemed worthy of an Oscar.

This happens so often these days that it’s now difficult to find the shock and outrage that met the decision to ignore Hoop Dreams.

Filmmaker Jay Cheel seemed largely ambivalent when commenting in The Documentary Blog, which he founded. “The documentary nominations have been a recurring issue within the non-fiction community for years now,” Cheel says. “I can’t help but wonder how anybody is still surprised by the Academy’s oversights or why this seriously flawed and outdated organisation still holds power or influence over anyone other than consumers of populist, blockbuster entertainment.

“They’ve gotten it wrong one too many times and their nominations are usually uninspired across the board. Yes, the documentary category is particularly infamous for its snubs, but why is this still news? Can’t we just accept the fact that the Academy favours a certain type of film and leave it at that? I’m perfectly fine with writing them off as irrelevant dinosaurs.

“Isn’t there a point where you just have to cut your losses and conclude that the Oscars just aren’t for you?”

Kapadia himself was angry, but at the snubbing of The Interrupters rather than his own Senna film. Through his Twitter account, he described the omission of Steve James’s latest project as “madness.” He said: “Interrupters was my fav film of the year, madness you’re not shortlisted.”

Realscreen quoted an unnamed director of a film that did make it as branding the decisions “disgraceful.”

But there was some support for the decisions. ST Vanairsdale, writing for Movie Line, saw more good than bad in the final list of 15 which will go forward for judging in January ahead of the presentation ceremony on February 26.

Vanairsdale said: “Honestly, this is a list I can live with. I wasn’t crazy about Abyss and would have been more than a little frustrated to think that might finally be the film for which the Academy recognises Herzog.

“When you realise that the Oscar is Paradise Lost 2: Purgatory’s to lose anyway, the bitterness abates and you just tip your cap and content yourself to watch the rest of the game from the home video sidelines.”

Interesting that Movie Line should mark Paradise Lost out as the favourite, because that film’s nomination is kicking up quite a stink as well.

The film is the third instalment on the story of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted of murdering three young boys and dumping their bodies in a ditch in 1993. Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger have followed the story through three films, calling into question the convictions.

The latest film features the trio being released from prison having agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge to cut their sentences. The feature did make the shortlist but now Todd and Dana Moore, the parents of one of the dead boys, has written to the Academy to demand the film not be considered.

Arkansas’s quotes the Moore’s letter as saying: “Because of public pressure that exploded due to gross misrepresentations of fact in the two previous documentaries, Michael’s killers were unjustly able to enter into a plea agreement, were released from prison and now pose additional threats to society.

“We implore the Academy not to reward our child’s killers and the directors who have profited from one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated under the guise of a documentary film.”

Berlinger, who admits he believed the men were guilty when he first started filming the story, told the paper: “We understand why a film that comes to a different conclusion than they do would make them feel this way. We stand by our films. We fervently believe the West Memphis Three are innocent.”

In a later statement released to the Hollywood Reporter, the filmmakers said: “We cannot imagine the pain that the parents of Michael Moore, Steven Branchand and Christopher Byers have endured as a result of their children being murdered. Therefore, despite the many incorrect statements contained in Todd and Dana Moore’s letter we wish to express our deep sympathy for their loss.

“Although members of two of the three families of the victims have come to believe that the West Memphis Three are innocent of killing their children and have been extremely supportive of our films, the Moore family, as is their right, continues to believe in the three’s guilt, so we understand their frustration with a series of documentaries that have helped lead to the release of The West Memphis Three.

“We stand behind the integrity of our journalistic process and the information contained in our films which demonstrates the innocence of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. We also suggest that the State of Arkansas honour the memory of Michael Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers by finding the real killer or killers responsible for this horrific crime.”

So, just another quiet year for the documentary film Oscar then. The final shortlist will be announced on Tuesday January 24 from the following 15 films – included with their production companies in brackets.

Battle for Brooklyn (Rumur)
Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)
Buck (Cedar Creek Productions)
Hell and Back Again (Roast Beef Productions)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry Productions)
Jane’s Journey (NEOS Film)
The Loving Story (Augusta Films)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (
Pina (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
Project Nim (Red Box Films)
Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Tied to the Tracks Films)
Sing Your Song” (S2BN Belafonte Production)
Undefeated (Spitfire Pictures)
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (JUF Pictures)
We Were Here (Weissman Projects)

today's correspondent

Clive Whittingham News editor C21Media
Clive Whittingham Perspective

Clive Whittingham is news editor at C21 Media and also edits C21's Factual Weekly newsletter.

Prior to joining the company as senior reporter in 2011, he worked for several regional newspapers in the UK, including the Northants Evening Telegraph. He has also worked for The Daily Telegraph.