While the Academy Slept
A few minutes before the winner in the Best Documentary Feature category was announced at last year's Oscars, Wim Wenders was feeling pretty confident. After all, his film, Buena Vista Social Club, had been a huge commercial and critical success, and it was the odds-on favorite to win. But then, according to Wenders, producer Arthur Cohn--whose picture, One Day in September, a sleek, flashy film about the kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, was also in the running--approached him and said, "Whatever happens today, I hope we will remain friends and keep a mutual respect for each other." Says Wenders, "Before I could really say anything, he was gone again. That's when I had a sudden sinking feeling that we had been pretty naïve in thinking we had a good chance. I sat down and realized that [Cohn] didn't have to ask for mutual respect. That is the rule of the game in the Oscars; it goes without saying. You would only ask for it if you had a bad conscience, so to speak."
Wenders's bewitching film was about to go the way of so many other popular documentaries (if they were lucky enough even to be nominated): eclipsed by a virtually unknown film whose total audience barely exceeded the tiny fraction of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members who had seen it. When Cohn collected the Oscar, Wenders applauded, but Cohn's acceptance speech, he says, "left me speechless. Congratulating the academy for being able to distinguish between commercial success and artistic value was a slap in the face of all the other nominees. You just don't do that to your competitors when you get up there to receive an Oscar. Some of the other nominees sitting just behind us were just as appalled." Wenders walked out. "I was disappointed, but not because we lost," he continues. "Only because we had not really had a fair chance to win."
A box-office and critical hit with a strong distributor behind it not given a fair chance? Welcome to the strange world of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Since 1995 three of the winners have been Holocaust documentaries--Anne Frank Remembered, The Long Way Home and The Last Days--and One Day in September had obvious Holocaust undertones. After Spike Lee's documentary Four Little Girls lost to The Long Way Home in 1997, Lee said, "When the film is about the Holocaust and one of the producers is a rabbi and it comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, there are not many sure things in life, but that was a sure thing when you consider the makeup of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I'd have rather been the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter, down ten points, a minute left in the United Center, than have the odds we faced of winning the Oscar against the Holocaust film."
There's more to the story, however, than the academy's apparent penchant for Holocaust and Zionist-themed documentaries. After all, Claude Lanzmann's epic Shoah didn't receive a nomination. And the recent Holocaust-themed winners--with their conventional, largely apolitical approach to their subjects--have none of the wit, irony, artistry or rage of Marcel Ophuls's 1988 Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (a rare example of a documentary Oscar winner that deserved it, though his earlier masterpiece The Sorrow and the Pity lost out to an insect documentary). To the academy, documentary is less a popular art form than a public service medium: Over the past decade, the films nominated, with a few honorable exceptions, have been the cinematic equivalent of castor oil. Then-New York Times critic Janet Maslin described them as "films about the Holocaust, the disabled, hard-working artists and inspirational programs in the inner city"--worthy subjects that all too often get mediocre or sentimental treatment.
In other words, the struggle over the documentary Oscar is a cultural struggle over documentary itself: between what some call the academy's "cultural commissars," who dictate the definition of a "good" documentary, and a diverse documentary filmmaking community that has challenged the selection committee's conservative aesthetic values. It has been a fight against what Errol Morris calls the "Mother Teresa school of filmmaking--the idea that if a film is about an exemplary person or subject matter, then it follows that the film is just as good." In recent years this struggle has intensified, and last year the academy was finally forced to respond, enacting comprehensive reforms to the controversial selection process for documentary films. But some say these reforms did not go far enough--they didn't, for example, save Buena Vista Social Club.
It's hard to believe that in 1975 a triumphant Bert Schneider--whose anti-Vietnam War documentary, Hearts and Minds, took top honors--used his acceptance speech to convey greetings from the Vietcong. Flash forward two decades and the documentary section had become a sleepy backwater, with an antediluvian selection committee seemingly oblivious to new currents in documentary film. Even old masters like Albert and David Maysles, who made the unforgettable Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens in the 1970s, have been ignored by the academy. Asked to speculate on why this might be, Susan Froemke, their protégée and collaborator, hesitates. But then she recalls a pre-Oscar ceremony reception hosted for documentarians over a decade ago, where she mingled with academy members responsible for selecting documentary nominees. When she introduced herself to one member as a colleague of the Maysleses, he looked at her blankly. "The name obviously didn't mean anything to him," she says.