Best Documentary Oscar: The Shortlist, and a Long History

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Oscar statueFifteen films have been shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and not everyone’s happy about the list. Notable omissions include In the Shadow of the Moon, a rapturously reviewed film that saw NASA astronauts remembering their missions to space during the 1960s and 1970s, and The Devil Came on Horseback, the devastating and affecting documentary that tells the story of the genocide in Darfur through the eyes of a former U.S. Marine.
The Alternative Film Guide blog has a good roundup of the shortlisted films.
There will be lots of rumblings about what’s on the shortlist (and what’s been left off) in the coming weeks. Doc blogger Agnes Varnum calls the list “uninspiring” but it’s filmmaker and blogger AJ Schnack that really lays into the Academy. In a scathing post, Schnack says that the Academy has “…closed their eyes, their ears, their doors” by preferring a “competent, conventionally-styled film that maintains an even keel” rather than “film[s] that swing for the fences.”

A little background on the Academy Award for Best Documentary: It’s been a controversial topic for many years. Films that have been excluded from nomination include The Thin Blue Line (1988), Paris is Burning (1991), Roger and Me (1989), Hoop Dreams (1994) and Grizzy Man (2005).

After an outcry about the lack of nomination for Hoop Dreams in 1995, with articles from Roger Ebert and Entertainment Weekly accusing some Academy members of blackballing the film, the selection process for the Best Documentary Feature category changed. Under the current rules, members of the Documentary Branch of the Academy produce a shortlist of 12-15 films; then later choose five nominees through a second round of voting. Once the field is whittled down to five, any active members of the Academy can vote for the winner, but only if they’ve viewed all five of the nominated documentaries in a theatrical setting.

Here’s a short list of articles on the long history of controversy surrounding the Best Documentary Feature category.
New York Times: Documentaries and the Oscars: No Cinderellas at the Ball (1993)
Roger Ebert: Anatomy of a Snub (1995)
New York Times: Why Bold Documentaries Get Few Oscars (1998)
The Nation: While the Academy Slept (2001)
Time: Penguin vs. Bear: 1-0 (2006)
New York Times: And the Documentary Nominees Aren’t… (2006)
The Brooklyn Rail: Academy Award Doc Blues (2006)

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.