Most people enjoy the Oscars’ glamour and glitz and eagerly await the opening of the envelope for Best Picture, but at Mountainfilm in Telluride, our attention is focused on the decidedly less sexy Best Documentary Feature (and the short doc category, as well). Lots of our festival favorites have been nominated for Oscars, and many have won that gold statue, including Louie Psihoyos for The Cove, Alex Gibney for Taxi to the Dark Side and Roger Ross Williams for his short Music by Prudence.
Each year, what is nominated and what isn’t often stirs up controversy. With documentary nominations, however, the wrangling starts with the process, which seems to change each year as heavyweights with varied interests, such as Michael Moore and HBO, try to influence the system in their favor. Of course it is often the independent filmmaker who suffers because the new rules tend to undermine smaller films.
As it currently stands, documentaries are eligible for an Oscar if they screen in Manhattan and Los Angeles for one week, get reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and buy a newspaper ad (“minimum dimensions of one inch by two inches”) in one of the city’s major papers. Approximately 130 films qualify for nomination under this unwieldy system. That group is then winnowed to a Short List of 15 before the nominations are announced in January, making it a long road to the opening of the envelope and hearing the words, “And the winner is …” on February 23, 2013.
That road hit a notable curve with this year’s announcement of the Shortlist. Some of the subjects covered by the films include sexual abuse (in the U.S. military and the Catholic Church), the security situation in Israel and the drug war in the U.S., leading conservative columnist Brent Bozell to see a runaway liberal conspiracy. Most of the controversy came about, however, because certain major documentaries were missing, including The Central Park Five by Ken and Sarah Burns (which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival).
Some of the films that did make the Shortlist are Mountainfilm 2012 favorites, such as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Chasing Ice and Ethel. They have two more big hurdles — an actual nomination (announced January 10, 2013) and then an Oscar win — before the talented filmmakers get up to thank the Academy (and no doubt Mountainfilm). In the meantime, we wish them the best in traveling down the next stretch of this winding road.