We’re Living in a Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking

But you’d never know it from watching the Oscars.

Still from Senna.
Still from Senna.
© 2010 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

This January at the Cinema Eye Honors, an alternative to the Oscars for documentary films, director and top prizewinner Steve James said, “I feel and have felt for a long time that we are in a golden age of documentary filmmaking.” Yet outside of his fellow filmmakers and industry professionals at the Museum of the Moving image on that night, few seem to be aware of it.

Of the more than 800 feature films released theatrically in America last year, more than 300 were documentaries. (At premiere marketplace festivals like Sundance and Toronto, the ratio is similar.) Yet at the Academy Awards, where the film industry lavishly celebrates itself, all of those films compete for one measly award: best documentary. By comparison, dramatic features get 20 chances for an Oscar. While it’s technically possible (and eminently justifiable) for documentaries to receive nods for technical categories like editing, cinematography, and sound, in practice it hardly ever happens. And in 84 years, no documentary has even been nominated for best picture.

Yet that one measly award is still the most exposure that documentaries receive in a given year. Docs account for a small fraction of domestic box office, so an Oscar nomination can propel a film with a modest marketing budget to greater visibility. Which explains why the process of reviewing, nominating, and awarding best documentary receives as much scrutiny and belly-aching as any Oscar category. So much rides on that statue, or seems to.

As the academy prepares to change its qualifying rules for docs yet again—doing so has become an annual, infantilizing ritual—the whole process is starting to feel silly at best, counterproductive in the least, and destructive at worst. Because while the doc community contorts itself to win that morsel of recognition, the golden age of nonfiction filmmaking that James spoke about has gone largely unnoticed.

Some of last year’s best documentaries—each of which was ignored by the academy—were as entertaining and cinematic as the year’s best narrative films and formally far more audacious, incorporating elements of absurdist comedy (Errol Morris’ Tabloid), subterranean mystery (Resurrect Dead), pulse-pounding athletic competition (Senna), experimental theater (The Arbor), historic-poetic meditation (Nostalgia for the Light), 3-D spectacle (Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams), archive exhumation as pseudo-memoir (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu) and even song and dance (Bombay Beach). “In documentaries there’s all these things,” said James. “It’s not a genre anymore.” But in the eyes of Oscar—and to some degree the popular and even critical imagination—that’s exactly what it is. And as with any genre, there are rules to follow and expectations to fulfill. Needless to say, none of the above films fits snuggly into a standard issue doc box. They don’t present easily reducible arguments or identifiable enemies (not even the dictatorial Ceausescu fits the mold), standard three-act narrative arcs, sound-byte-generating talking heads, or willfully optimistic endings. They’re complex, fact-based works of art rather than infotainment. There’s nothing wrong with films that aim more straightforwardly to entertain or inform, but ignoring the artistry of documentary filmmaking relegates the form to a utilitarian ghetto, and overlooks some of our era’s best cinematic work, period. 

Perhaps thanks to the sheer number of innovative works last year, a few exemplary nontraditional films actually made it through the Oscar nominating gauntlet this year. In Hell and Back Again, Danfung Dennis uses discomfortingly beautiful combat camerawork and a suspense-film-worthy soundscape to depict the plight of a soldier caught between the battlefields of Afghanistan and the bewildering PTSD-addled nightmares of home.* And Wim Wenders’ exuberant Pina, a context-and-story-free 3-D dance eulogy to choreographer Pina Bausch, might be the most formally experimental documentary to ever receive an Oscar nom.

But while those nominations should be applauded, they hardly amount to an adequate or accurate appraisal of all that makes this a golden era in documentary film. Five years ago, filmmakers AJ Schnack and Thom Powers started the Cinema Eye Honors to acknowledge and celebrate the art of the documentary, handing out awards to nonfiction producers, directors, editors, composers, and cinematographers.* Outside of a few wayward and tipsy presenters, there’s nothing really subversive about Cinema Eye. What’s surprising is that it took so long to acknowledge how documentaries actually work: Someone makes choices about how to shoot a film, and someone else constructs a narrative out of the footage. Perhaps to some degree we’re uncomfortable, as a culture, with the fact that documentaries do require artistry, that there’s an indeterminate gap between hard fact and presentation. Maybe not consistently, since we’re also a culture that subsists on pseudo-factual reality TV. But when the time comes to honor and elevate a documentary, we seem to want reassurance that it’s all true, all above board. Tell me a story but try to tell it straight, make me feel but don’t make me think about how I’m feeling, give me the facts without calling the facts into question. Whatsits like Exit Through the Gift Shop might sneak through with a nomination, but strident, morally unambiguous titles like Inside Job and The Cove tend to prevail in the end. When Errol Morris finally won an Oscar in 2004 (it was also his first nomination), it was for Fog of War, a relatively sober and straightforward portrait within a filmography defined by eccentrics and boldly aestheticized re-enactments. Two superior and knottier films have followed, Standard Operating Procedure and Tabloid, and they’ve been ignored by the academy. 

The truth is that docs can and should be as varied and unruly as the world they capture. No matter how well-reported or well-meaning, there’s an element of dishonesty to wrapping up a complex story in a simple package. Last year’s best films pushed past surface scruples to get at deeper, knottier truths. In Bombay Beach, director Alma Har’el both observed and participated in the lives of subjects struggling to get by in an impoverished town off California’s fetid Salton Sea. Interspersed with candid footage of three principal characters—an elderly cigarette bootlegger, a lovelorn high-school football star and a little boy battling emotional demons and prescription meds—are stylized dance sequences in which the characters turn their living environments into spaces of play and reverie, each sequence custom choreographed to music by indie band Beirut. Needless to say Har’el’s gaze isn’t objective. The truth is that documentary subjects are also collaborators, and Har’el celebrates rather than hides that fact, using the joy of dance to make us feel pathos for subjects from whom we might ordinarily feel alienated. (If Cinema Eye ever gets around to honoring “best performer,” little Benny Parrish should get the award retroactively).

From its opening moments forward, The Arbor challenges us to question what we see and what we hear. In a strategy bold and purposeful, director Clio Barnard hired actors to lip-sync to the deposition-like audio interviews with the family and friends of late English playwright Andrea Dunbar, a shooting star whose life was cut short by the very things she dramatized—poverty, depression, and addiction. The uncanny quality of what we see—the syncing is studied and fluid but always just off—reminds us that we’re hearing (and obviously seeing) imperfectly recalled memories, subjective accounts, versions of the truth. The effect is to complicate every second of screen time yet still build to an indisputable tragedy. 

Academy Awards and nominations are won through consensus, and consensus doesn’t usually truck with complexity. This year the academy’s documentary branch considered 124 eligible films. (From more than 300—why 124? The eligibility racket is another story altogether.) Volunteers (i.e., those with time on their hands) break into small groups to consider a few films at a time, meaning that each film is viewed and rated by only a few people before a 15-film shortlist is chosen from the aggregate scores. Which means that all it took to kill a film’s Oscar dreams was for just one person to think that Senna’s source-material storytelling was inadequate, that Tabloid exploits its daffy lead subject, or that Werner Herzog was just too Herzogian—a process that’s highly susceptible to bad moods and personal preferences. And people think Harvey Weinstein has too much power in Hollywood.

Which is how we end up with a situation like the one faced by Steve James’ The Interrupters. A walloping work of eyewitness reportage about embattled, imperfect people who nevertheless fight heroically to disrupt gang violence in Chicago, the film took home the top two prizes at Cinema Eye, was elected best documentary in both the Village Voice and IndieWire critic’s polls, and stands at 99 percent on the approval rating. Yet it wasn’t even shortlisted for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, James has been through this before: In 1994 his celebrated, and, at nearly $8 million in box office, profitable documentary Hoop Dreams didn’t make the shortlist despite sweeping the critics’ polls and becoming a cause of Siskel & Ebert. In terms of form, neither The Interrupters nor Hoop Dreams are particularly innovative, and in terms of Hollywood’s leftward-leaning proclivities, you’d think they’d be sure bets. Does someone on the branch have it out for Mr. James? Did the films not have the requisite amount of uplift to make the hard realities of black America go down? God knows, but no film should have to endure such fickleness, least of all a film as vital as The Interrupters

Going into effect next year, the latest changes to the nominating process call for the entire Documentary Branch to vote on both the shortlist and the nominees, and for the entire academy to vote on best documentary. This eliminates the single-bullet scenario described above but replaces it with a situation in which it may not be possible to ensure that all voters have actually seen the films in question. Formerly, best documentary voters had to attend a theatrical screening in order to vote—next year, screeners will be sent out. Which is bad news for underpublicized gems that found champions in the Branch, and good news for name auteurs like Herzog, Morris, and Michael Moore, who sits on the Board of Governors and personally pushed for these changes in the name of “democracy.” The upshot is that best documentary will be chosen much the same way that best picture is: After months of promotion, partisanship, and buzz, the consensus pick will win.

So be it. An Oscar win would have been invaluable, but surely there are other ways to get more people to see a film as powerful as The Interrupters, which to date has brought in less that $300,000 at the box office (if subject Ameena Matthews is worthy of Stephen Colbert’s millions of viewers, why couldn’t she land a legitimate theatrical run?). Tabloid and Senna made $700,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, yet both are accessible and entertaining films built for a much wider audience than that. “We need an insurgency of documentary filmmakers to do what we need to do to get these films shown in movie theaters,” Michael Moore said at Cinema Eye. Sounds good, but we also need an insurgency of theater owners, distributors, marketers, and moviegoers. Yes, the film business is in flux, caught between dwindling box office and fledgling alternative distribution platforms, but maybe it’s time for the biz to start taking notes from the art. Throw away the boxes, stop pretending there are rules, take some risks. Stop worrying over what documentaries should be, and instead find ways to champion what they can be. Stop treating them like the veggies when they’ve become the main course.

Corrections, Feb. 14, 2012: The article originally misstated the film’s title as To Hell and Back. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article originally stated that the Cinema Eye Honors were co-founded by Schnack and Esther Robinson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)