While the Academy Slept
In the final round, academy members voting for the documentary winner--unlike in any other category except that of foreign film--are required to have seen all the films nominated, although, unlike the members of the selection committee, they do not have access to videos of the films. This system insures that only a small number participate in the final vote. Before last year's ceremony the distributors of Buena Vista and On the Ropes, another nominee, feared that the voting field could be as low as 200. "If you were an academy member and aggressive about it, you could be sure to get your supporters to watch your film and you could win...by keeping the viewership down," Amir Malin, Buena Vista's distributor, told Variety. Wenders thinks this is what happened with One Day in September. "It opened in the boondocks, in a remote theater. It apparently only sold a handful of tickets in its run of one week, and was restricted to one matinee screening per day. So it complied with the academy regulations of a theatrical run, but at the same time the producers knew that nobody had seen it--neither critics nor academy members--unlike the other four films, which were commercially available on video and in theaters. So the producers of One Day in September completely controlled the voting situation: Only people who came to the private screenings they organized and the limited academy screenings could actually vote. Thus, the overall votes were kept low, and the percentage of votes likely to go to One Day in September were high."
However, says Wenders, One Day in September's producers did nothing dishonest: "They went by the rules. But by knowing the rules and by applying them as much as possible in their favor, they actually created an advantage for themselves. You've got to hand it to them: They were very smart and planned this campaign really well, from the very beginning to its successful end."
Cohn disputes this account, claiming that his film was completed in time for the academy's October submission deadline but not for theatrical distribution (other than its one-week qualification run). There were "countless [academy] screenings in Los Angeles," Cohn says, "as well as in New York, Boston and San Francisco." Members also attended screenings at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Film Institute. "There is not one academy member who wanted to see the film and was upon his request not given the opportunity to do so," he says. (An academy spokesman said there were only two official screenings in LA.)
In any case, further reform could insure that such questions never even arise. Wenders says, "You either have to keep the final vote among the documentary community--but then you base it on a relatively narrow number of academy members--or if you keep it open to the entire academy, you have to furnish tapes to the entire membership, just like in other categories." For his part, Morris suggests that the rule requiring voting members to see all nominated films be scrapped, with voting "thrown open to the whole membership, for the selection process as well."
This year's Best Documentary Feature award will be the second test of the academy's recent reforms. The nominees are a sober yet eclectic bunch, though nothing idiosyncratic or irreverent made it to the final stage. The apparent front-runner, backed by Warner Brothers and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the moving if formulaic Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, about young Jewish children from Central and Eastern Europe who were admitted to Britain as refugees before World War II; also popular is Legacy, a stark vérité portrait of a black south Chicago family living on welfare, which is marred by its moralizing tone. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy brings to light the racist incarceration of nine black men for the alleged rape of two white women in 1931 and the mass movement, led by the American Communist Party, for their release--an important and fascinating film undermined by the filmmakers' earnest PBS style and their failure to link past with present. More compelling are Sound and Fury, a riveting low-budget film about a new therapy to alleviate deafness that has created enormous tension and anger among deaf Long Island suburbanites, and Long Night's Journey Into Day, a magnificent, provocative documentary about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that eschews the temptation to end on the crescendo of moral uplift that the academy loves.
Whoever wins, and despite recent reforms in the selection process, the real proof of the pudding will be the day Errol Morris takes home an Oscar, as Alan Adelson has suggested. But that could be a long time coming. Even if the restrictive voting rules are relaxed, there's no guarantee that the general membership will get things right. Still, applying the academy's usual standards to documentaries would be a big improvement. As it stands, says Morris, "I've got more of a chance winning my first Oscar for a fiction film than a documentary."