The OTHER Oscars: Best Documentary Feature

The OTHER Oscars Best Documentary Feature Cutie and the Boxer

While the nominees (and perceived snubs) in acting and directing will get the most digital ink in Academy Awards coverage, we at CraveOnline would like your attention for some of the “smaller” categories. Funny enough, our selected categories to comb through have had the most rule changes, the most committees, and nowadays, the most tweets of “who was that dude with the hair?” and “who was that homeless girl?

The Other Oscars – Third Category: Best Documentary Feature

I’ve said in my previous entries of this column Oscar nomination snubs and historically frowned upon winners generally get most of the ink and not as much time is spent at looking at when the Academy might have gotten it right. However it’s impossible to talk about the numerous changes in how a film even gets nominated for Best Documentary without wading into the muddy “snubbed” area.

Documentary film has always been the older sibling who receives fewer gifts than their prettier, spoiled, younger sibling: the movie.

Its earliest forms largely served the functions of ethnography, propaganda, newsreels or a stuffy history lesson. The medium began shifting in the 70s – perhaps aided by the cinéma vérité movement, where narrative films started looking like a documentary (using the observational eye to create a story) – but the Academy has only recently been catching up to notice that a documentary can tell a story just as adventurously as a movie can.

After a string of years saw some of the most acclaimed documentaries unable to land a nomination (Shoah, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Paris is Burning, Crumb, are just some examples) it was Hoop Dreams’ lack of a nomination that sparked the first sweeping change in the nominating process for a documentary.

Hoop Dreams

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were the most popular and accessible of film critics. One of the few times that they wholly agreed at the end of the year, they both selected Hoop Dreams as the best film of 1994 – a year that also had Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Ebert called the inner-city family and basketball profile “one of the best films about American life” he’d ever seen. He also had it listed as the best film of that decade and was certain that if Siskel were still alive in 2000, he would’ve also chosen it.

Ebert was so enraged by the snub that he placed an inquiry into the process. He was appalled at what he heard from “reliable sources.” Because so many films needed to be screened to the documentary committee, each viewer was given a flashlight, and if they didn’t want to finish a film they’d flash it at the screen. Once a majority of flashlights had been flashed, they’d move on. Hoop Dreams lasted 15 minutes before getting flashed off.

That year, the Academy’s Executive Director Bruce Davis asked Price Waterhouse to return all the ballots to see how people voted. He found that the weighted system was detrimental as people (volunteers within the Academy, who that year, spent 96 hours looking at 64 films) were mostly only using 10s and 0s.

Barbara Kopple, who won two Academy Awards for on-location shooting of labor disputes, said she was “close to tears” when Hoop Dreams was snubbed. Kopple immediately became the head of the documentary selection committee and oversaw the first wave of selection changes.

One Day in September

It’s fitting that an award that often goes to politically themed films, has often been manipulated with each rule change. One of the initial changes, post Hoop Dreams was that a committee member could only vote if they’d seen all five nominees. That rule changed shortly after One Day in September, which chronicled the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, won in 2000. September’s producer, Arthur Cohn, greatly reduced and specifically oversaw the invitations to Kevin Macdonald’s film. He proclaimed: “I won this without showing it in a single theater!” Again, the documentary filmmaking world was irked and new rules were made.

The changes post-September were to create various equal-sized groups of volunteers who were responsible for viewing and voting on only ten documentaries – so there was no excuse to not complete a film and all would be seen. However, you could only vote on the ten that were assigned, and the lowest vote you could use was a 6. Also, similar to selection of Best Foreign Language Film, the initial field would be reduced to 10-15 eligible titles before the nomination.

Documentaries could also become eligible by screening in just one theater for one week, anywhere in the US. In the later aughts this led to some documentary distributors renting out a small theater for a one-week qualifying run. By 2011, there were 124 feature-length documentaries eligible and new rule changes to come to reduce the field. Conversely in 2011 Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, was again denied a documentary nomination for his lengthy look into inner-city Chicago, this time focusing on gang counselors in The Interrupters.

The Interrupters

Currently, the system is a little bit of a quagmire. Most of the changes have occurred to reduce the amount of documentaries that get screened. By 2012, the number of eligible feature-length films was back down to 60 possible viewings, for a 160-person committee.

The emphasis of the nomination qualifications, now, is basically whether or not a documentary can stand on its own as a theatrical product. And whether it’s been propped up enough by New York or Los Angeles based critics.

The film has to have had a one-week commercial release in New York and Los Angeles. This rule was mostly a response to documentary “festivals” such as DocuWeek in Los Angeles, which – for $20,000 – would screen documentaries to get the theatrical showing qualifier out of the way. Now the documentary has to be released in at least two theaters, as a theatrical product, for at least one week.

The film has to have a review from either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. Sorry, Idaho Statesman, these are still the cultural gatekeepers.

The entire Documentary Branch will vote. As opposed to the previous revision where a volunteer only voted for ten pre-assigned films.

While the New York and Los Angeles specification might seem snooty, the added qualifications really speak to how far documentary film has come over the last 30 years. It used to be difficult to get people in a room to watch a documentary. Now there are too many for a committee to fully take in. Like Best Picture hopefuls it requires a committed distributor looking to spend on publicity to keep a documentary discussed throughout the awards season.

Folks may not like that PR aspect, but it’s inherent in the “bigger” categories. So, for that mindset to seep into the documentary category, I think it makes the category feel a little bigger by proxy.

Despite committee changes to nomination procedures, people are still upset that Grizzly Man, Senna, Tabloid and, now, Stories We Tell weren’t nominated and that speaks to a larger passion for the documentary art form. If people weren’t passionate about these past films, like Ebert, like Kopple, and now within certain corners of the blogosphere, there wouldn’t have been any changes in the nominating procedures. We’d still be honoring films that consist solely of talking heads and stock footage.

The Nominees for Best Documentary Feature in 2013:

20 Feet from Stardom20 Feet From Stardom

(dir. Morgan Neville) 

$5 million at the box office might not sound like much, but it does make 20 Feet From Stardom the biggest box office success amongst the Best Documentary Oscars. More than Box Office, this film has been a huge success for the women that it covers – studio backup singers to the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, etc.

Edward Douglas of CraveOnline’s brother-site ComingSoon.net interviewed Morgan Neville.

Some of the women featured recently performed the national anthem at The Rose Bowl, and there’s talk of a collective tour.

The Act of KillingThe Act of Killing

(dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Here on CraveOnline I named this the best film of 2013. The Act of Killing tackles genocide and filmmaking by having an Indonesian-government-rewarded killer reenact his killings in the style of American films that he loved.

Oppenheimer has received, by far, the most amount of press for a documentary this year. He even has Sarah Polley on his side, who, after not receiving a nomination for Stories We Tell, tweeted congratulations specifically to The Act of Killing.

Oppenheimer has appeared on “The Daily Show.” He has huge banner recommendations from the most worldwide celebrated documentarians working today: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. However, that doesn’t mean he’s primed for a victory, because now the full Academy gets to vote, and his film is a tough (but powerful) sit.

The Act of Killing is currently streaming on Netflix.

Cutie and the BoxerCutie and the Boxer

(dir. Zachary Heinzerling) 

Heinzerling crafted a fantastic three-prong documentary that tackles a 40-year-marriage, artwork and New York City and explores how all of those entities can change and remain the same over 40 years. The subjects are Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara. They share a shadow (his) and have very different creative outbursts, but ultimately are able work on all aspects of life together.

Heinzerling spoke with Anne Thompson about why he chose to make Cutie his first feature.

Cutie and The Boxer is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Dirty WarsDirty Wars

(dir. Richard Rowley)

I have not seen Dirty Wars, but I will (like, 4/5 of these films, it is currently streaming on Netflix – perhaps, the biggest benefit of being nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar for a wider audience).

However, if you watch the film and would like to view a 30-minute interview about Dirty Wars with the subject of his film, you can over at HuffPost Live. Rowley follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill on his profiles of wars in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The SquareThe Square

(dir. Jehane Noujaim)

Although debuting at Sundance and playing at the Toronto Film Festival, The Square, for all purposes debuted on January 17, 2014 on Netflix. Netflix also provided time for Noujaim – who screened The Square as a “work in progress” at Sundance 2013 – to modify the film, which covers the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Noujaim returned to Egypt to street-level-document extra political protests that occurred in Egypt six months after the film debuted at Sundance.

For all intents and purposes, The Square is a film that, in its current shape, debuted after the nominations were announced. It did, however, meet the NY/LA screening requirements in December and was reviewed by The New York Times after it screened at The New York Film Festival.

Noujaim spoke with Interview Magazine about the ongoing process of making The Square. The film is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Slideshow: Five of the Best “Best Documentary Feature” Winners


Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.