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Doc Corner: How much has the changing Academy changed the Best Documentary category ?

By Glenn Dunks

Among all of the talk happening since the Oscar nominations, a good deal of attention has been paid to the role the new roster of Academy members might have played in what we were given. With good reason, too, considering the nomination list reads rather obviously as the awkward merging of two very different kind of voters. Virtually every category has something for both the old and the new guards – or, at least what we perceive to be the old and the new guards. 

Even a category like Best Sound Editing has a horror movie and a Mexican domestic drama sitting next to musical biopics and action blockbusters. In Best Makeup and Hairstyling you'll see standard old/overweight and royalty makeup side-by-side with a curious Scandi whatsit. And doesn’t it feel odd to imagine the same acting branch voter notching Sam Rockwell’s name for Vice and simultaneously selecting Marina de Tavira one category over?  The documentary branch is no different. Their 2018 nominees for Best Documentary Feature are even more 'new guard,' taking this idea of a shift in identity even further...

I admit that I was very cynical when making my predictions for this category, sourly suggesting that Hale County This Morning, This Evening would be the soul film able to penetrate through to the line-up in a year that, across the board, seemed primed to reward success and mainstream acceptance. And even that was a surprise given the actual film itself, a film unlike any I can recall being nominated in the 75 years of this category's existence. I based that prediction entirely on its DGA nomination which suggested that even among a populist group of voters it had support (and rightfully so -- I am convinced it’s a masterpiece).

But I shouldn't have been so cynical. I should have expected more from a branch that just ten months ago had invited, among 75 others: Maite Alberdi, Petra Costa, Feras Fayyad, Catherine Gund, Jennifer Kroot, Jeff Orlowski, Turner Ross and Nanfu Wang. All wildly different names working in various forms and stories often on the fringes (at least of American culture). We never know who or how many actually accept the invitation, but thinking back on it, this international and artistically daring lineup and voters bypassing huge hits like Won’t You Be My Neighbor or Three Identical Strangers and including three acclaimed nominees that have grossed a total of $21,000 between them, shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was.

That being said, RBG –that I wrongly predicted would be the likeliest of the four doc blockbusters of 2018 to miss the nominee list – represents something of the more traditional idea of what the documentary branch has gone for. And even then, it’s appearance over Neighbor (from a previous Oscar winner, Morgan Neville) can still probably be reasonably explained as an act of political defiance: Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG can be seen as a middle finger to a certain presidential figure whose obsession with pop culture is larger than any other. 

The documentary branch's notorious flip-flop attitude towards celebrating hit documentaries has given it plenty of controversies over the years. This year’s exclusions naturally led to them being labelled “perverse” by one member of a very popular awards season podcast. People who presumably don’t actually watch many documentaries in any given year were furiously sounding off. What even is Of Fathers and Sons, anyway? 

Of Fathers and SonsOne can choose to look at this year’s nominations as just a typically fussy branch being “perverse” or stubbornly reactive, but I can’t help but be somewhat more optimistic now. This line-up of contenders feels like a rewriting of an entire category’s narrative right in front of our eyes. A pleading for what the category and the branch who votes on them can and should stand for as the documentary medium is experiencing unprecedented growth and as issues of representation increasingly encroach on all facets of filmmaking.

It really can’t be overstated how wild this line-up is. While other films, documentary or otherwise, use praise and campaigning by the likes of Sean Penn (he was stumping for Communion) to gain attention, the experimental Hale County was counting on Apichatpong Weerasethakul of all people to get us to watch their screeners of a 75-minute movie made up of fleeting moments, abstract poetry, and atmospheric visuals in favor of narrative. You’ve simply seen nothing like it this year; its Oscar nomination is a miracle.

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, seen predominantly via Hulu, is another portrait of traumas and joys experienced by the lower class residents of a small town. A tragedy predominantly about two lives, one who is repeating a vicious cycle of violence and abandonment and another who's determined to fight against it. It's a transcendent work that shares DNA and echoes of Moonlight. So much so that I was not in the least bit surprised to learn Barry Jenkins is a fan. And for the second year in a row there is a foreign-language documentary about Syria, with the branch acknowledging the bravery and determination of director Talal Derki risking his life to embed himself with sniper’s family whose children attend jihadi bootcamp in Of Fathers and Sons. It's also worth noting that Derki's prior film, Return to Homs is highly regarded in non-fiction circles.

So whereas other branches feel as if they’re in a state of flux, it’s actually hard to imagine the documentary branch reverting back to 'normal' after this generally stellar line-up (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo is the fifth and final nominee and a deserved one, too, even if I wouldn't include it in my own personal top five). The doc branch haven’t gotten enough credit in recent years for giving us great line-ups because the larger voting body inevitably provides a disappointing (IcarusUndefeated) or steamrolling (Amy, OJ) winner. Following that logic, I guess RBG is your likely champ although we'd rather see Free Solo  take it from the group of  hits that the bulk of the Academy might have actually seen. 

But in a year that gave us some of the highest-grossing and most zeitgeist-busting doc hits of all time, this was the year they chose the experimental and the fluid and the challenging and the dangerous? That tells me that the new class of the Documentary Branch means business and as always it can only be for the better.




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Reader Comments (11)

I saw Of Fathers and Sons before the nominations and I couldn't believe it when it got nominated. It's so hard to sit through this movie.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I get your point about the changing Academy, but the doc branch has always been more adventurous with its nominations and prone to snubbing presumed frontrunners. I mean, prior to the Academy expansion, we had nominees like Exit Through the Gift Shop, Pina, The Act of Killing and its sequel... And that's just from the years where I followed the category enough to know what was avant garde and what was more standard fare.

Anne Thompson had an interesting theory about the Won't You Be My Neighbor snub, saying that they often snub prior winners in the category, feeling that one win is enough.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Glenn, you must watch this!

It's the RGB team realizing there's only spot left for Three Identical Strangers, Won't You Be My Neighbour and themselves. It has everything, drama, suspense, ecstasy...

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Evan, like I say - they don’t get enough credit for their choices, but this year feels different. We have to throw out the rule book if HALE COUNTY can get in.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Peggy Sue -- THAT'S AN AMAZING CLIP. Thanks for sharing. You really do see it dawn on them when "of fathers and son" starts being read out. So little time to process that there's no room for them. OH BUT WAIT THERE IS.

February 5, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Of Fathers and Sons is by far the best of the movies they nominated.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Glenn, can you remind us how voting works for best documentary? Is it that branch members pick the nominees and then all all members of the Academy can pick the winner? It used to be different, right?

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

HALE COUNTY, which I didn’t really like, is such an abstract choice that I kinda love that it’s nominated.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is going to be airing on PBS on 2/11

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

Hale County This Morning, This Evening looks amazing, I will def be tuning in on Monday. Thanks for the heads up, MJS.

February 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

SanFran, no i believe it's always been that way. Foreign Language is the one that you used to have to see in special screenings to prove you'd seen everything. I don't think doc has ever worked that way.

February 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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