While the Academy Slept
Adelson also points out that the film that won Best Documentary Feature that year--Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision--was directed by Frieda Lee Mock, chairwoman of the selection committee for the previous two years. Adelson noted in his Entertainment Weekly story, "To vote for the winner, Academy members must see all five films chosen by the committee. The number who did, admits [academy executive director Bruce] Davis, was very modest. But one group of Academy members who had seen all five films were Mock's fellow committee members [in previous years]. In fact, the decisive voting bloc to pick the winner might simply have been the nominating committee, rubber-stamping its own preference."
By the time of the publication of Adelson's story in July 1995, the academy had already announced reforms intended to insure that the Hoop Dreams fiasco wouldn't happen again. It was the academy's first adventure with reforms, and they were largely cosmetic. The pre-selection meeting was scrapped, a new, East Coast committee was created to add geographical diversity, and the lowest score was changed from a 4 to a 6. But Arthur Hiller, the academy's president, warned in a statement, "I don't know that any of these changes would have made any difference at all in the outcome of the nominations."
Hiller's warning proved to be prescient. Holocaust documentaries had always been popular with the committee, but now, in the wake of the commercial and Oscar success of Schindler's List and amid Tinseltown's growing fascination with the subject, they began to win with astonishing regularity. Adelson, who has made two Holocaust-themed documentaries, says, "I do think it's proper for the nomination committee to note a film's social significance. Oscars shouldn't be value-free. Social documentary is needed, but there is a problem if that value obscures aesthetic issues and there's no willingness to reward innovation."
Errol Morris recalls joking that his 1999 work, Mr. Death--a disturbing film about an American designer of execution equipment who becomes a Holocaust denier after making an illegal trip to Auschwitz--"would be the first Holocaust-themed documentary not to be nominated for an Oscar." It didn't get nominated, though Morris notes that "it was the closest [any] of my films [came] to making the final short-list." Israeli film critic Uri Klein, reviewing the 1998 winner, The Last Days--the story of five Americans who return to Hungary to recount their experiences as Holocaust survivors--wrote, "It proves once again to what degree the Oscar for best documentary is almost never related to true cinematic-documentary quality."
Buena Vista Social Club's nomination last year was welcomed as a sign of providential change in the academy. A vigorous group of documentarians--fresh from defeating the academy's attempt to scrap the Best Short Documentary category altogether--were instrumental in effecting a series of new, wide-ranging reforms that went beyond 1995's tweaks, kicking out the timeservers and introducing four groups of documentarians who judge submitted films on video to pick the nominees, thus solving the problem of selection-committee members having to give up time to attend screenings. Last March, Betsy McLane, executive director of the International Documentary Association, told the New York Times, "The new system seems to be working very well. I haven't talked to anyone who doesn't feel this is an improvement."
Why, then, did One Day in September triumph? One filmmaker and academy member told me that many members she knew thought it was terrific. There's no denying One Day in September's power, which comes largely from the tragedy of the event it chronicles, as well as the showy (and rather unoriginal) way it presents the terrorist spectacle. But it's a remarkably one-sided treatment of the episode. With the exception of a few fleeting shots of a Lebanese refugee camp, the film, as Edward Said observed, "eliminate[s] the Palestinian narrative" altogether and ignores "the desperation and horror that inspired and nourished [the Munich massacre]."
Before his Oscar victory, Kevin McDonald, One Day in September's director, told the London Times that his film was the underdog even though he admitted it would be helped by "the Jewish aspect." The film had other advantages too. Producer Cohn, who had already won five Academy Awards, commands respect in the Hollywood community, and the film benefited from some antiquated rules governing the last stage of voting in the documentary category.