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Culture Warrior: A Case for the Non-Fiction Best Picture

By  · Published on November 16th, 2010

With the release of Pixar’s Up, last year saw a great deal of conversation surrounding the ghettoization of animated movies at major awards shows. This debate resulted in something of a minor, qualified victory for animated cinema of 2009, as Up was the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture since Beauty and the Beast, but then again it sat amongst a crowded bevy of nine fellow nominations, and animated films remain unthreatening to their live action competitors because of the separate-but-unequal Best Animated Feature Category.

I’d like to take this space to advocate for the big-category acceptance of yet another marginalized and underappreciated category around awards time: non-fiction films.

While feature-length documentaries have been honored within their own category since 1942 (as the interest of the war created an interest in war-related docs), they have never to my mind held a spot in any other category and (not surprisingly) have never been listed as a competitor for the big one. Documentaries are in many ways marginalized in a more systematic fashion than animated films – they’ve held their own categories for much longer, and in the year-end Top Ten lists that critics dole out every winter separate categories are routinely made to distinguish narrative fiction filmmaking from documentaries. Usually critical top ten lists are the bastion for underappreciated animated films, allowing them to compete alongside “real” movies featuring “real” people (even if one of those people is Sandra Bullock), but the perceived schism between “narratives” and “documentaries” is accepted well beyond the arbitrary body of individuals that vote in awards ceremonies.

In some respects, the distinction does make sense. In terms of simply categorizing types of films, recognizing this variation is quite apt. Non-fiction films enable a different kind of storytelling, embolden a distinctly different set of expectations, and employ a different array of narrative devices and aesthetic possibilities than conventional narrative fiction. But at the same time, top ten lists and awards shows already consist of films which belong to otherwise divided categories – comedy and drama, independent and studio, Judi Dench and non-Judi Dench – which invite competition and thus comparison, so it would not be much of a stretch to push for non-fiction films to be recognized in the larger categories where the incomparable are already being compared year-by-year.

Why am I advocating this? After all, I rant each year on the meaninglessness of the self-congratulatory ritual that is awards season. This is undeniably the case, and I still believe the politics of Hollywood awards have little bearing on influencing lasting cultural significance. But the awards season does have beneficial repercussions, like the fact that because of these marginal categories, prime-time network television for one brief moment gives voice to the existence of films that many audiences may have never known about, films ranging anywhere between Persepolis and The Secret in Their Eyes. The Best Documentary Feature category is no exception, as the films nominated in this category are some of the lowest grossing of all the nominees that actually see a theatrical release. One of last year’s nominees, Burma VJ, made only $51,672, and its widest circulation was on three screens. An Academy Award nomination (combined with spectators who have access to the Internet and Netflix) is the best advertising some of these films could ever ask for.

Why now? Well, 2010 is a year in which several important docs have been released that engage in their respective topics in ways that narrative fiction films simply couldn’t because of their distinct storytelling utilities. Documentaries permit a degree of exposition that would be unforgivable in fiction filmmaking, and thus permit a means of examining a socially relevant subject with a depth that other films can’t approach. Why would the stories told in Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job or Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” need manufactured character development, recognizable movie stars, or a conventional three-act structure to legitimate an existence within the Best Picture category?

Sometimes the truth is so much more compelling. One doesn’t have to look for allegory to see the immediate cultural significance of the documentary, it’s right there on the screen, and it’d be hard to argue that any film this year addressed more urgently important subjects than the two mentioned above. While we have to wait years before we can see whether or not movies like Avatar or The Hurt Locker had anything so say or reflect on the cinema culture of the first decade of the 21st century, these documentaries are commenting on lived history as we live it. After all, Catfish had more to say about social networking than The Social Network.

One way I make this distinction is through the following example: while I respect and admire Gus van Sant’s Milk, I would never view Sean Penn’s performance as the ultimate cinematic representation of the man. If I wanted to show somebody who Harvey Milk really was, I would much sooner show this person the 1984 Best Documentary Feature winner The Times of Harvey Milk before the performed representation of the same subject. These are two Academy Award winners about the same person, and they each serve their unique functions, but one undeniably possesses a more approximate relationship with its subject and can articulate things about it that the other can’t without becoming didactic.

One reason these films get minimal awards recognition outside their respective categories is the lack of recognition these films get in the mainstream film culture. For a documentary without the name Michael Moore attached, making more than one million dollars is a considerable success. But documentaries, by their very nature, do not have mainstream appeal because they engage in narratives of the particular: they examine their subjects with a magnifying glass, and their potential appeal lies in either a viewer’s given interest or investment in that subject or (in an action that is significantly more difficult) the ability to foster interest in a subject. To deem documentaries unworthy of competition on the grounds that they’re nearly economically invisible amongst the competition is to betray what a documentary is (and yes, box office has a great deal to do with awards season).

A continuing debate over documentaries in the Academy is the ongoing clash over exactly what a documentary is. The Academy have overlooked iconic documentaries numerous times because of arbitrary delineations of what a documentary is or should be (famously ignoring Errol Morris’ groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line in 1988 and later disqualifying Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man because it used too much existing footage). As Exit Through the Gift Shop exhibited so entertainingly this year, what exactly qualifies as a documentary can be mighty elusive.

The Best Documentary Feature category has its roots in industrial war propaganda films, but since then the form has embraced cinematic dynamism. Documentaries have always been in an evolutionary state. The “objectivity” question is one that has come up quite a lot in the influential wake of Morris, Moore, and Morgan Spurlock, who are perceived by purists as having traded in objectivity for aesthetic (a misguided distinction that bears nostalgia for a time in nonfiction filmmaking that never existed – let’s not forget that much of documentary filmmaking was staged since the days of Robert Flaherty, and the only major difference since is the critical eye we’ve developed through media saturation and the Internet), but the new generation of documentarians – with Guggenheim, Ferguson, and the prolific Alex Gibney amongst them – reap the benefit of their problematic forefathers, creating documentaries that are engaging, sleek, entertaining, dramatic, often funny, and truly cinematic. We should remember to not let our pursuit of false objectivity cause us to underestimate the value of films that engage transparently in critical perspectives.

So with ten spaces on the nomination ballot once again available this spring, I’d rather the Academy fill that space eclectically with the potential variety that such a ridiculous number of slots deserves, giving some recognition to a few films that really are important rather than fill it out with the many good-but-not-great fiction movies out there.

Build a time machine, go back in time, turn ‘Dear Zachary’ into an Oscar winner, and then go read more Culture Warrior

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