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Can Documentaries Break Free From Their Own Category?

Amir here.  When it comes to the Oscars, one of the things I love to complain about each year is the Foreign Language category. That’s hardly a surprise since the category gets so much flak from everyone, but my concern this time is about something more specific than the usual “shocking” snubs.

Looking over past lists of nominees, you'll notice that the Foreign Language Film category has failed to showcase a documentary before. Like... EVER! (Unless you count Waltz With Bashir, which some do and some don't). The reverse has happened many times: the documentary branch has nominated and awarded foreign documentaries.

To be fair to the Academy, not many documentaries are submitted to begin with in foreign film. But even when they are submitted and happen to be as deserving as say, Finland’s Steam of Life in 2010, they still get ignored. So I did a little research and came to the conclusion that this problem is not really limited to the foreign category. Documentaries have always had a hard time breaking out of their box. Admittedly, the voters’ hands are tied when it comes to some categories (acting, costume design, etcetera.) but there’s no reasonable explanation for the absence of documentaries in editing, cinematography and even the sound categories.

Which brings me to my main point: the Academy has at least four shots at righting this wrong come January. It’s highly unlikely that any of these nominations will come to fruition but staying silent about them won’t help the cause, so here we go: these are my suggestions for documentary nominations in non-documentary categories. From my mouth to cinema god’s ears.   


Pina (Foreign Film Category)
Several pundits (including Nathaniel) think the German entry has what it takes to make it to the top five. I’m not as high on the film as some critics seem to be, but considering what a delightful and remarkably unique nomination this would be should it happen, I can fully get behind it.

Jose & Pilar (Foreign Film Category)
Not quite as buzzy but even more deserving than the German submission is this Portuguese gem. This documentary is about one of my personal favourite writers, the Nobel Prize winning Jose Saramago, in the last years of his life with his wife Pilar. The film is rooted in Saramago’s ideology but also steps away to observe him from an external perspective. It succeeds both as an intimate portrayal of love between an older couple, and as a compelling character study of a man whose life is an endless source of fascinating political and literary ideas. I’ve only seen 12 of the submissions so far, but I have a hard time believing there are five better films among the rest. Nevertheless, I won’t get my hopes up. When there are films about children and WWII available to Oscar voters, what are Saramago’s chances?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Cinematography)
Herzog’s film and Pina are the only two films I've seen recently that had me thinking “I’m glad I saw that in 3D” when exiting the theatre. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography brings Chauvet Cave to the big screen without losing any of its magic. Zeitlinger’s poetic vision conveys the experience of visiting the cave and etches an array of mesmerizing images in our minds. 

Senna (Editing)
Is there a chance of this happening? If Senna is nominated in the best documentary category, that will be a beautiful achievement, but Chris King SO deserves a nomination all his one. Snubbed just last year for his intricate work on Exit through the Gift Shop, he’s back with an explosive blend of F1 action and personal drama. Transitioning between racing footage, family videos and adding only sound clips (without the talking heads) Senna is an eclectic mix that gets our adrenaline going but leaves us in tears at the end. It owes so much to King’s editing. It’s been 17 years since the Editor's branch nominated Hoop Dreams and it’s about time they embraced another documentary film.

Your turn! Which documentaries would you like to see nominated? Do you believe in miracles that it could happen for any of them in an extra category?

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Reader Comments (20)

awesome, very insightful post. the editing nom for HOOP DREAMS still makes me smile

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan S

One notable exception of course is the Best Song win for An Inconvient Truth.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercorey

This is a great post.
The fact that documentaries almost never get more nominations is a a clear example of how narrow minded the Academy can be.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Any of these documentaries have any solid Original Songs? That category is scant this year, and some rocking Melissa Etheridge-style song would be an excellent solution to the slim pickings in this category.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

John T -- 'José and Pilar' incorporates many known songs into its soundtrack but the backdrop of the movie has a Portuguese musician, Noiserv, playing original songs like this one:

Alas, it's in Portuguese.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Amir --- Thank you for the beautiful description of 'José and Pilar'. I've been saying for a while that if much more people had seen the movie, it would be a distinct possibility for a nom.

In Portugal, the distributor has trying to build a campaign overseas to build momentum and buzz for the film but as you know it's hard.

I hope that with more compliments such as yours more people will get to see it.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I would *absolutely* count WALTZ WITH BASHIR as a documentary.

But to answer your question, I'd love to see that SENNA editing nom.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGJB

My favorite documentary this year is definitely "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory", this is the perfect example of a film can actually change and even save people's life.

Also loved "Undefeated" by Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin. I know it's not a good time to talk about football coach... but this film is truly touching and inspiring.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

John T - I haven't looked that up yet. The Songs category is so hard to follow. I don't think the academy released the longlist yet though.

Jorge - Yeah, I really love the film and think it deserves a big audience. Hopefully more people will discover it. Though, whether they do or not won't help its Oscar chances since the voters in the foreign branch have to see all movies before voting anyway. The only question is if they'll vote for a documentary.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I guess I don't have any specifics in mind, but I don't see any reason why an incredible documentary should not be considered for other awards that regular films get.

Great blog!

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt S.

"José and Pilar" is one of the greatest films of the year. The Academy always wants to surprise (last year it picked Dogtooth) and this will be this year's revelation.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMPD

I realize having 10 Best Picture nominees was a controversial decision, but had they stuck with it, I think it would have made it much more possible to see a documentary nominated for Best Picture one day. As it is now, I'm not sure it will ever happen, but it's really the one big milestone that's yet to be achieved in the top Oscar category.

Plenty of documentaries have deserved Best Film Editing nominations even though only one has ever received one. All films are reliant on editing, but the editing is especially important for documentaries since the actual filming is unscripted and much less controlled than it is for a narrative film. One could easily argue that the editing is where a documentary stops being just footage and turns into an actual film, so I'm not sure why they've consistently ignored deserving documentary features in this category.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

OK, I'm not sure if it's even eligible for Oscar due to it's Youtube Screenings/British TV Screenings, but it's up for BIFA awards so I can talk about it with some kind of reasoning...

Why is NO-ONE mentioning LIFE IN A DAY? I'm biased of course because I worked on it, but it's a truly special film... It had the misfortune in the UK of being released 2 weeks after Senna which was a B.O. smash. Therefore Cinemas put on extra Senna screenings instead of LIAD (which was a Vue exclusive for a while). They of course didn't want to sacrifice screens that could go to Green Lantern etc for another documentary. And compounded with that, there's only so many column inches a documentary is going to get and all the while the papers were praising Senna, LIAD just came and went.

Not to knock Senna, it's an incredible piece of work, in fact a lot of the Senna crew went on to Life in a Day.

But Life in a Day is unique, a life affirming encapsulation of a day in the life of our world, directed by an Oscar Winning documentary Filmmaker and produced by Ridley Scott.

When talking about Documentaries being recognises outside of their category however, it's even more important to talk about Life in a Day... At BIFA, both Senna & LIAD are nommed for Best Doc. In the technical achievement category (where you can be nominated for work across multiple films) Senna is up for Editing and Life in a Day isn't. Not to take anything away from Senna, it was masterfully edited.

Life in a Day was edited by Joe Walker who this year also edited Shame. At BIFA he's recognised for technical achievement for the latter but not the former. Shame is a beautiful film, it's edits sparse but powerful. But with Life in a Day, Joe (who's never edited feature documentary before) had to take 80,000 clips (4,500 hours of footage) and with his team shape it into a 90 minute film about one day on earth. His contribution was so great that Kevin insisted that when the film ended, the first name that came up was Edited by Joe Walker.

So there's my vote. Joe Walker for Editing Life in a Day. And while I'm at it Matthew Herbert's contribution to the score, composed from sounds submitted in the videos... Beautiful. And the song he wrote for it, performed multiple times in the film by different people.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBradley Porter

Joy- Speaking of Paradise Lost 3, I've read in a few places that it may receive an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release sometime in December. If it does, I think there's a good chance it could be nominated (and even win?) even if only as a recognition of what the trilogy has helped to accomplish. Plus we all know there are quite a few Hollywood celebrities who have followed this case, so it's not hard to imagine it will attract some support should it be eligible.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

Bradley- I've only limited myself to talking about documentaries that I've actually seen, of course. I've seen a great many because of the hot doc festival in toronto, but haven't gotten to Life in a Day yet.
That's the point of asking readers for suggestions though since I knew there were films I was missing. I quite liked Walker's work on Shame so I won't be surprised if I end up agreeing with you once I see LIAD.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

The People vs. George Lucas should be a contender for Screenplay and Film Editing, for sure. I mean, what a research!

I wouldn't mind a Zeitgeist III: Moving Forward nom at Screenplay, either.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

is the cave movie even eligible? I thought it made a stealth run last year?

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpoopface

poopface- I thought that too at first. I haven't found an academy-approved list of eligible titles, but I saw some people (like Awards Daily) predicting it for best documentary so I assume it's good to go this year.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Sheryl Crow has an original song ("Love Will Remain") that may be in contention for the documentary "Raw Faith", subject to it being officially submitted. It is mentioned on the FYC poster for the film.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob LIcuria

Amir - Sorry, I didn't mean that to come across as aggressive in any way, I read it back and thought "shit, that might have been a bit full on!"

But yes, I hope you enjoy it! More than likely it's not eligible with AMPAS, but I've seen crazier things from them. You can actually watch it for free now on

November 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBradley Porter
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