The Oscars' Documentary Puzzle

Article excerpt

Films that reach the semifinalist shortlist have to pass through a bizarre process to get there.

Around the parties and panels of Amsterdam's international documentary festival in November there seemed to be less focus on the hundreds of films in the festival than on 15 that weren't: those on the Oscar semifinalist shortlist, which is released each autumn by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Once again it stirred up trouble.

While directors, producers, buyers and sellers bemoaned the inclusion of certain films, they mostly bewailed the exclusion of others, among them Leonard Retel Helmrich's "Position Among the Stars," which had won the festival's top prize the year before. Perhaps even more painful was the omission of "The Interrupters," an ambitious look at Chicago activists and their efforts to pre-empt street violence.

That a good film was left off the list wasn't a big surprise. It happens every year. But the director of "The Interrupters," Steve James, a festival honoree, was being viewed as a particular victim. Back in 1994 he was deprived of a nomination for a little basketball movie called "Hoop Dreams." Its absence became one of the best- known snubs in recent Oscar history. That his work was again being ignored for the most prestigious award in film didn't just generate indignation. It produced a strange kind of satisfaction: The Oscars never get it right.

They do, of course, get it right. Sometimes. But that doesn't alter the perception that the shortlist is shortsighted. And the nominations too: The list of films left out over the past 20 years, a period during which the genre has exploded both in terms of production and exhibition, constitutes a default hall of fame.

"'The Thin Blue Line,"Hoop Dreams' and 'Crumb' are all notable examples of films knocked off the list," said Mark Harris, a three- time Oscar winner, professor of film at the University of Southern California and member of the executive committee of the academy's documentary branch. But in his view matters have dramatically improved in recent years. "It was clear that the voters who had the time to look at these films were older, and people from other branches who had nothing better to do," he said. "The response was to develop a documentary branch and have only documentary makers make these choices. And that seemed to work. The choices were better."

Still, the academy tends to favor inspiring stories about struggle and triumph, not examinations of darker subjects with ambiguous conclusions. This year there is once again a preponderance of tales of uplift among the 15 potential nominees. (The finalists will be revealed on Tuesday.) They include the Harry Belafonte biography "Sing Your Song"; "Jane's Journey," about the primatologist Jane Goodall; "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," about the questionable murder convictions and eventual freeing of the so- called West Memphis Three; "Buck," about the "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman; and the heartwarming urban high school football movie, "Undefeated."

"I don't know how different people are in the doc branch versus the academy as whole," said Mr. James, who takes a philosophical view of the entire competition process. "The triumph of the human spirit, inspiring tales, are things people love to see. Look at 'The King's Speech' last year. It's always unusual, even on the dramatic side, when a dark and troubling film makes the list, or actually wins."

Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, agrees up to a point. "'Taxi to the Dark Side' was hard," she said, referring to the Oscar-winning Alex Gibney's expose on torture in Iraq and Afghanistan. "'An Inconvenient Truth' was hard. And Charles Ferguson's 'Inside Job' was a toughie." But she said the shortlist was misleading. "What gets on the shortlist is different from what gets nominated," she said. "A lot of smaller films get in, and they get dropped. The intent seems to be to make people hopeful and then make them sad. …