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Monday, March 05, 2007

Dustup Over Academy Awards' Treatment of Documentaries

Art Threat has published an open letter director John Sinno (Iraq in Fragments) sent to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after attending this year's Academy Awards:

I had the great fortune of attending the 79th Academy Awards following my nomination as producer for a film in the Best Documentary Feature category. At the Awards ceremony, most categories featured an introduction that glorified the filmmakers’ craft and the role it plays for the film audience and industry. But when comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money. He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very "real" quality, while making a comically sour face. This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films "incredibly depressing!"
This is a legitimate complaint in its own right; Sinno is standing up not just for his film, but for the documentary filmmakers who don't even make it to the Academy Awards, who suffer even more from the stigma of such characterizations. In fact, Sinno sees an even bigger issue looming:
Seinfeld’s introduction arrived on the heels of an announcement by the Academy that the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers’ work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision.
The Academy has an easy out if they want it - they could use the letter to further paint the documentary filmmaker and his kind as just the sort of dour, fun-free folks Seinfeld already insinuated they were. In the age of Sundance, Cannes, and other highbrow film awards, there's really no credibility to be lost by doing so (although many Academy judges would bravely protest this claim). So therein lies the question: Will Oscarville declare its seriousness about documentary filmmaking and the real-world issues films like Iraq in Fragments represent for the "movie magic" industry, or will it defend its commitment to a lack thereof? Read the full letter here.

1 comment:

Rob Maguire said...

Thanks for pointing folks to the letter, we were quite pleased that John Sinno allowed us to publish it. It will be interesting to see what, if any, reply the Academy has forthcoming. My guess is that they'll ignore him for the time being. The real response will be seen in 2008, when they choose who will grace the stages to present next year's best doc award. It's probably safe to say that Seinfeld won't get the gid.