In the run-up to this year’s Oscars, the Academy announced that they would be narrowing down the qualifications for a Documentary Feature to be eligible for the Best Documentary Academy Award. The Academy is enforcing that only a documentary which has received a review in either The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times will be eligible for the award. The impetus for these changes is the rising number of documentaries that are being taken into consideration by the Academy; last year, they considered 124 documentaries, up from 101 the year before. Yet, the changes to be implemented for next year’s Oscars are seen by many documentary filmmakers as a step backwards.
Personally, I see this as something of a minor tragedy; over the last ten years, documentaries have evolved beyond merely informative, non-fiction films to become incredible feats of filmmaking. I suppose the major documentary filmmaker to have brought the format to an unprecedented level of popularity is Michael Moore. Whether or not you agree with the politicised and sensationalist nature of his films, Moore’s presence is undeniable. Bowling for Columbine – a recipient of the Academy Award for Best Documentary – Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story have all tackled contemporary American issues to bring them to greater public attention. Parallel to this, we have the work of Morgan Spurlock, whose highly controversial Supersize Me tapped into the zeitgeist of America’s fast-food culture.
A new breed of documentaries have re-ignited interest in the genre, ranging from the disturbingly moving – such as Dreams of a Life, the exploration of how a women died in her home and was not discovered for 3 years – to the mundanely touching – such as Dragonslayer, a look at skate legend, Josh ‘Skreech’ Sandoval, and the responsibility he must embrace as a father. This is particularly applicable to Senna, the recipient of the BAFTA Best Documentary award in 2012. Senna documents Brazilian F1 motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna’s life and ultimately his death. The film, composed entirely of archive footage, is by far one of the most refreshingly original documentaries to emerge in recent years.
Two favourites auteurs of mine currently working within the documentary medium are Werner Herzog and Charles Ferguson. Herzog, famed for his eccentricity within the German New Wave, has produced a phenomenal body of documentary work; from Grizzly Man, the tale of a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers filming bears, eventually getting eaten by one of them, to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D exploration of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, a cave which contains the earliest known cave paintings. His latest documentary, Into The Abyss, has recently received its commercial release, telling the story of two convicts in Texas, one sentenced to life in prison, the other to death. Herzog’s work explores otherworldly subject matters and stamps his own peculiar vision onto them. Ferguson’s body of work is much smaller than Herzog’s, but is just as entertaining. Ferguson, an MIT educated software entrepreneur, attempts a ruthlessly factual dissection of contemporary American society. His first film No End In Sight explored the vast administrative errors by the Bush government during the occupation of Iraq. This was soon followed up by the Academy-Award-winning Inside Job, which delved into the systematic corruption of the US financial services, resulting in the subprime mortgage crisis. Ferguson’s work acts as a strong counterpoint to Moore’s; rather than simplifying complex subject matters, his films educate the viewer, providing a more rounded view of issues that are easily manipulated by the heavily politicised news channels of America.
Given the recent accomplishments of these filmmakers, it feels sorely unjust for the Academy to react to the influx of superb documentaries by narrowing down the requirements for the award, rather than expanding that particular branch. After all, isn’t the Academy supposed to reward the very talent and innovation witnessed within contemporary documentary filmmaking?