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Opinion: The Other Docs

Does the recently announced shortlist for Best Documentary Oscar nominations really include the best titles of the last year? Documentary director AJ Schnack says no, and calls for a new engagement with the art of nonfiction filmmaking.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its shortlist for Best Documentary Feature Oscar on November 19th, many in the documentary community were shocked. Despite a year of debate over new eligibility rules which were supposed to ensure that Oscar nominees were theatrical documentaries, and not television docs in disguise, the Academy's screening committee nonetheless selected just six films which had pursued a true national theatrical release (complete with advertising, screenings for critics, and reporting of box office figures). Some were clearly never more than television pieces and were rushed through their required theatrical release in order to get to their scheduled date with cable TV. At least three of the films have already aired on television in the US.

But it was much more than the TV-versus-theatrical issue which prompted emails and text messages and phone conversations containing words like "sad," "disgusted," "appalled," and "abomination." It was the films themselves—both the ones named, and the ones overlooked. This year, the feeling of anger and despair wasn't prompted by a single missing film—like Hoop Dreams or Crumb in years past—but by the exclusion of 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 even a few of these films, the Academy—following the lead of the International Documentary Association, which had announced its finalists just days before—ignored them all, including such widely acclaimed films as Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Billy the Kid, Protagonist, Manufactured Landscapes, In the Shadow of the Moon, The Devil Came on Horseback, We Are Together, Deep Water, and My Kid Could Paint That, among others.

That's not to say that every film on the shortlist is an outrage. At least a handful are completely deserving, led by Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, which won Best Documentary at Tribeca this year and is the only one of the year's major festival juried winners to appear on the shortlist.

But I recently participated in a private group effort to evaluate all of this year’s documentaries. When we narrowed the best ones down to a dozen or so, we had what I am convinced are truly the cream of 2007. And not a single film on our list, not one, made it to the shortlist.

Not one.

Full disclosure: My own film, Kurt Cobain About a Son, qualified this year under the Academy's rules. We were not shortlisted. You’d be excused for viewing this commentary as a reaction to personal rejection, though I will say that I always thought the odds ran against us, considering the Academy's historical reluctance to recognize documentaries about popular music figures—or biographical films in general. But if you still think this is a case of sour grapes, I can accept that.

However, my reaction to the Academy's choices stemmed not from my feelings about my own film, but from what the list revealed about how the Academy sees this particular moment in documentary history. We find ourselves at a crossroads, in the midst of a new wave of nonfiction filmmaking in which filmmakers are utilizing craft and filmmaking tools in new, exciting, and sometimes experimental ways. The old rulebook, which treats nonfiction as some specialized offshoot of journalism, has been thrown out. It's an incredibly exciting time to be working within the genre.

Yet, here in this remarkably fertile period in nonfiction filmmaking, these are the choices the Academy and the IDA have made on the two important questions currently facing the documentary community at large:

Should we prefer a competent, conventionally styled film to one that swings for the fences, one 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.

Even more importantly, should we favor a film's message over its craft? Here again, both the Academy and the IDA have answered resoundingly. Craft always comes in last.

And this is perhaps the key to what's wrong with documentary filmmaking today. Topic trumps filmmaking.

That's why there isn’t a single craft award at the decade-old Full Frame Film Festival. Nor is there a single craft award given annually by the IDA. Nothing for editing, cinematography, composing, or direction. Yet Full Frame does offer an award to the film "that best portrays women in leadership," and another to the film "that best exemplifies the values and relevance of world religions and spirituality," and still another honoring filmmakers who "lay bare the seeds and mechanisms that create war." On Friday, the IDA will present its annual award for "best use of television news footage." No award for creating your own, however.

Why worry, you might ask. Indeed, why should any serious artist be concerned with the whims of organizations which have proven over time to be more interested in recognizing the best cause than the best filmmaking? An email I received recently from a top commissioning editor offers an answer: "The Academy provides about the only benchmark by which the public can judge documentary film." The editor went on to note how difficult it is to explain to non-documentary friends that the genre encompasses more than just the "cut-and-paste archive film"—that it can also mean stories told in creative, inventive ways.

And high-profile organizations like the Academy and the IDA aren’t the only ones taking such a narrow view of nonfiction filmmaking. At a seminar on criticism of nonfiction films last week at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, longtime critic John Anderson asked, "If there were a documentary that cured cancer, would you as a critic turn round and say, 'Well, it may cure cancer, but I don't like the cinematography, it's too long, and it has no theatrical potential?' Are you then doing a good job?" Leaving aside the improbability of such a scenario, what resulted was a group of international film critics all pondering whether one should criticize filmmaking skill if it meant the risk of "damaging the worthy message you agree with."

Once again, topic trumps filmmaking.

We need critics to dig deep within themselves and write about films from the perspective of their filmmaking, without such singleminded focus on the worthiness of their subjects. We need critics who can describe the art of creating nonfiction instead of just writing summaries of the events that transpire in the documentaries they review.

We need a movement of filmmakers, producers, commissioners, and others from within the documentary community to take a stand for craft, to launch a campaign for craft, to set aside tired notions of righteous causes. While the social justice tradition always has, always will, and always should exist in documentary, many of us view nonfiction filmmaking as more than a teaching tool—we see it as something that can be entertaining, something that can be artistic, something that can push stylistic boundaries, something that can reveal the human condition in unexpected ways, and something that can rival narrative as a filmgoing experience.

The future of nonfiction is to stand on the side of artists.

And that future is now.

AJ Schnack is a filmmaker and writer living in Los Angeles. His nonfiction work includes Kurt Cobain About A Son and Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), and he writes All These Wonderful Things, a blog primarily devoted to news and issues in the nonfiction community.


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