December 15, 2008 / 8:46 AM / 10 years ago

Oscar documentary shortlist favors social issues

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.

“Making the shortlist is a huge relief, because I want this movie to be for ordinary folks, not just for green activists,” he says. “From a populist perspective, maybe it’s not so surprising. We’ve been test-screening it for heartland audiences in the Midwest, and we keep getting standing ovations. People are requesting the film for their church, their school.”

With “I.O.U.S.A.,” director Patrick Creadon’s market timing was even more uncanny. When he started making a movie about America’s debt crisis two years ago, people he talked to were baffled. “They’d tell me, ‘What a dreadful topic!’” he says. “‘Why would you want to make that movie?’”

Nobody asks those questions now. “I’m pleasantly surprised to make the shortlist, but I can’t claim to be shocked,” Creadon says. “People are delighted to find out that our movie is an entertaining, human story. It’s not about numbers. But it also happens to be about the biggest news story of the year.”

Not everyone in the documentary world is happy to see the Oscar nomination process used as a soapbox for issues-of-the-week.

“Documentary might be the most vital form in American film right now, and the Academy consistently ignores the best work and the most important trends,” says Paul Sturtz, co-director of the True/False Film Festival, a prestigious docs-only event in Columbia, Mo., “There seems to be this attitude that it doesn’t need to be a good film if it’s about an important subject — it automatically gets eight out of 10.”

The Academy’s annual rejiggering of qualification rules also tends to spark controversy. This year, a requirement that the film have a qualifying theatrical run in New York as well as Los Angeles prior to the August 31 deadline meant the critically acclaimed “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated war memoir directed by Ari Folman, was left out of consideration. Meanwhile, several undistributed or unreleased films in the shortlist, including “Fuel,” “Blessed Is the Match” and Stacy Peralta’s L.A. gang-war history “Made in America” qualified only because their producers booked semiclandestine New York engagements in empty theaters.

Sturtz and others have publicly lamented the omission of several eligible films, most notably Sundance critical fave “The Order of Myths,” a portrait of Mobile, Ala.’s still-segregated Mardi Gras traditions.

“I think it’s a rich, panoramic achievement that leaves you asking questions,” Sturtz says. “It’s better than 90% of the films on that list.”

Given its subject matter, the absence of “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” is something of a surprise, and many observers expected the hit “Religulous” and the well-reviewed Texas development saga “The Unforeseen” to make the shortlist.

Still, it’s not as if more aesthetically ambitious or personal documentaries are entirely missing from this year’s list. “Man on Wire,” about the 1974 conquest of the Twin Towers by a French wire-walker, is far more “a crime caper infused with poetry and inspired by Truffaut,” as producer Simon Chinn puts it, than issue cinema.

Arguably, the social significance of “Man on Wire” lies in something never mentioned in the film — the fate of those buildings 27 years later. “Just possibly, I think the time was right for this film to provide the audience some catharsis for 9/11,” Chinn says.

Veteran cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ lyrical immigrant odyssey “The Betrayal — Nerakhoon” is a surprise inclusion, but nowhere near as major a surprise as Jeremiah Zagar’s intimate family memoir “In a Dream,” which has no distributor, has screened at only a few festivals and has scarcely been reviewed.

Still, in taking a reporter’s call, Zagar affects none of Herzog’s detachment. “This proves that the committee watched all the films,” Zagar jokes, “because nobody’s ever heard of ours. Just seeing my name up there with Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, people I’ve worked my whole life to emulate — it’s wild. It’s a huge, huge honor.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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