While the Academy Slept

While the Academy Slept

The strange career of the documentary Oscar.


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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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