Oscar documentary shortlist favors social issues

Mon Dec 15, 2008 3:40am EST
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By Andrew O'Hehir

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Werner Herzog has just had his Antarctica-set documentary "Encounters at the End of the World" named to the Academy's documentary feature category shortlist -- the list from which the five Oscar nominees will be selected in January. But the legendary German director still isn't sure why a reporter is calling him.

"The shortlist is pleasant news, but it isn't an event," he says. "My producers and distributors are enjoying it. A nomination -- now, that always means something. But this is really a non-story, isn't it?"

Perhaps Herzog can afford to be blase. He's been virtually ignored by the Academy throughout his long career, but this year, his South Pole odyssey -- a personal film with an environmental conscience -- may be the only picture on the 2008 Oscar documentaries shortlist to land firmly on both sides of the Academy's perennial documentary divide. It's a stereotype to say that Oscar rewards documentaries that call attention to important social issues, and privileges noble intentions and left-leaning political views over cinematic craft.

But it's also a stereotype with evidence to back it up.

Of the 15 features the Academy's documentary branch members are now being asked to screen over the holiday season, about 10 could be described as social-issue films, with varying degrees of didactic intent. Even within that category, there's tremendous variety: "Fuel," a grassroots-marketed film about the biodiesel movement, has little in common with "Standard Operating Procedure," 2004 Oscar winner Errol Morris' ruminative exploration of the Abu Ghraib detainee-abuse photographs. (Whatever one makes of Morris' films, they certainly don't lack for artisanship.) Neither of those bears any similarity to "Trouble the Water," a rip-roaring, rough-and-ready Sundance Award winner about a poor African-American couple surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

One can further divide the issue-oriented flicks into those that seem especially geared to the moment, in the vein of a recent Oscar winner featuring a former vice president, and those that tackle documentary perennials like the death penalty ("At the Death House Door" from the "Hoop Dreams" (1994) team of Peter Gilbert and Steve James) or the Holocaust ("Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh").

On this year's list, "Fuel" was one film that seemed to come out of nowhere, but as director Josh Tickell observes, "Everybody wants to be part of the green energy movement now."

Tickell's inexpensively made, microdistributed film about turning grease and other waste products into diesel fuel no longer seems like a college-campus countercultural statement.   Continued...