While the Academy Slept
"The problem was that there were generally sixty [documentary] feature films being submitted every year," says current academy documentary executive committee member Alec Lorimore, who helped spearhead the recent reforms. "That's somewhere between sixty and ninety hours of viewing. Who's got the time to watch all those movies?... It became very difficult for a wide range of active documentarians to participate in the process because of family or professional commitments. You had a group of folks who, quite frankly, had a lot of time on their hands who had gravitated toward this nominating committee, and it would be fair to characterize it as a clique."
The outcry over the omission of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989) brought to light controversies that had been bubbling within the documentary film community. Morris's film, which reinvented the form with its noirish visual and narrative style and use of re-enactment, had been voted best documentary of the year in three different national critics' polls. It was also responsible for freeing his subject, wrongly convicted prisoner Randall Adams, from death row. But the academy's selection committee, according to a committee member quoted in the Los Angeles Times, was "quite bitter" about the film's use of dramatic reconstruction. Morris, who is now accustomed to being overlooked by the academy, says he heard rumors to that effect. But he adds, "From what I heard, the selection committee didn't even get that far into watching the film." (If a majority of selection committee members raised their hands the film would be stopped. Apparently this was the fate of Terry Zwigoff's extraordinary 1994 film Crumb.)
Committee member Mitchell Block told the Los Angeles Times: "I think [the distributors] set [The Thin Blue Line] up as a shoo-in and...created an expectation among members that the film couldn't meet. But there was no backlash. As a group, we simply thought the five nominated films were better." When Michael Moore was overlooked for Roger & Me the following year, he pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed: "Mr. Block has a financial interest in who gets nominated; he owns a documentary distribution company and, in the last 10 years, nearly one quarter of all films that have won the Academy Award for best documentary have been Mitchell Block films." In the year of Roger & Me's omission, Block owned the distribution rights to three of the nominees. (In subsequent years, Block excused himself from the committee if one of his company's films was nominated.)
Why was Roger & Me slighted? Moore told one reporter, "We violated the two rules of documentary filmmaking. Our film is entertaining and people are going to see it." Roger Ebert noted that the committee members--of whom only a minority were documentary filmmakers--favored the old-fashioned "talking heads and file footage" approach to documentary.
Nick Broomfield's captivating exploration of the world of Heidi Fleiss, 1995's Hollywood Madam, was dismissed by one member of the selection committee--according to Broomfield--as the "pussy film." "It is frustrating," Broomfield complains. "All the normal [academy] standards are not applied if a documentary film about an important subject matter finds a commercial audience. They want to marginalize the documentary and reward endlessly boring but worthy films."
It was the startling omission of Hoop Dreams in 1995, however, that caused enough of a stir to force some changes in the selection process. Documentary filmmaker Alan Adelson, whose credits include Lodz Ghetto, spent sixteen weeks investigating the murky process that resulted in Hoop Dreams being, apparently, blackballed by the selection committee, and published his findings in Entertainment Weekly. According to Adelson, during a pre-scoring meeting in which members deliberated over the films submitted, one voter warned that if Hoop Dreams was nominated, its victory would be certain. "He appealed to his fellow members to preserve other films' chances of winning the Oscar by denying Hoop Dreams a nomination altogether," Adelson wrote. When the committee voted, at least two other attendees allied themselves with the anti-Hoop Dreams speaker and denied Hoop Dreams by giving it the lowest possible score, even though other committee members awarded the film top scores.
Why the animosity toward Hoop Dreams? "Many of the committee members at the time considered documentary the real weakling in the cinema litter," Adelson told The Nation. "They had a patronizing, paternalistic attitude toward the form: Documentaries are never seen by anyone until the academy shines their light on it and gives the poor weakling sustenance. There was a sense of mission. They promoted films they thought the public needed. And they felt threatened by an already successful film."