For Documentary Filmmakers, Prestige of Oscars Helps Put Spotlight on Issues

BY Arts Desk  February 20, 2009 at 9:39 AM EST

A community garden in South Central Los Angeles. A tightrope-walking daredevil. A family fighting for a new beginning in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. For documentary filmmakers, the reward of an Oscar nomination is twofold: It raises awareness around the film’s subjects or issues and generates interest in a genre that ticket buyers don’t generally flock to. Accolades are how these films can truly gain some traction, attract distributors and find viewers.

Along with ‘The Garden’, ‘Man on Wire’ and ‘Trouble the Water,’ the nominations in this year’s Documentary Feature category include ‘The Betrayal’ and ‘Encounters at the End of the World’.

“Trouble the Water” directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal hope the nomination both raises the profile of their film and refocuses attention to the ongoing rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “We made the film because people are still struggling along the Gulf Coast. [The nomination] puts a national spotlight on the film and also helps people remember that people are still struggling. We hope that the government begins to address it,” Lessin said.

“Man on Wire” producer Simon Chinn agreed. “Nominations bring a wider audience. That’s the hope of any filmmaker, because documentary film obviously isn’t a form people come to.” Chinn’s film was just re-released theatrically after wining Outstanding British Film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. “A nomination helps in cooking up next the project, attracting finance and raising interest,” said Chinn. “It helps spin the wheels for next project and next one after that.”

“Obviously, it’s absolutely amazing. You know what your obituary is going to say. It’s going to be with you your for life,” said Scott Hamilton Kennedy, director of “The Garden.” “The number of people wanting to get the DVD in universities, museums and one-off theaters across country and into Canada has been fantastic,” he said, adding, “How few Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmakers are there? What a privilege to be part of that group. To be among [Errol] Morris and [Barbara] Kopple, to know that my name is in that canon is incredible.”