Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: A New Award for Documentaries

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Ah, the doc world never sleeps. There I was, slowly plotting my next blog post about the January 12 deadline for submitting Oscar nomination ballots: I was going to make an 11th hour pitch for Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, the fantastic doc based on writings by U.S. soldiers in Iraq by Richard Robbins. But along comes an exciting announcement: Doc filmmaker and blogger AJ Schnack and online indie film distributor IndiePix are creating a new nonfiction film award ceremony because, as Schnack says on his blog, “there should be awards for nonfiction that [recognize] the breadth of the genre and [include] the crafts of cinematography and editing and producing.”

Awesome! It’s about time. Documentaries have evolved so much that they ought to be recognized for what they are now — films. Indeed, the Oscar shortlist was a pretty uninspired one to pick from and…

But wait. Schnack and co. announced their shortlist and my little miracle baby, Operation Homecoming…isn’t on the list. What the…?!?!

Let’s compare the two shortlists:
Academy Award Shortlist
Autism: The Musical
Body of War
For the Bible Tells Me So
Lake of Fire
No End in Sight
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience
Please Vote for Me
The Price of Sugar
A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman
The Rape of Europa
Taxi to the Dark Side
White Light/Black Rain

New Award Shortlist
Billy the Kid
Deep Water
The Devil Came On Horseback
Ghosts of Cite Soleil
In the Shadow of the Moon
Into Great Silence
Lake of Fire
Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)
The Monastery — Mr. Vig and the Nun
No End In Sight
Taxi to the Dark Side
The Unforeseen

The lists are pretty different, with only four films showing up on both. I agree that the new list is far more in keeping with what was great about docs in 2007. Still, I can’t help but be bothered by the exclusion of both Operation Homecoming, and another of my 2007 favorites, War/Dance. Both of these films achieve the highest standards in all measures of craft. And seeing the shortlist for the new award made me wonder: Did Operation Homecoming not make the cut because of the rules for consideration? Did War/Dance not get included because of the backlash against the film — some consider too polished, and unworthy since the filmmakers didn’t live in a hut for four years, but instead, flew in and out of Africa over a few months?

Schnack has said he welcomes debate on the matter, and he’s been open about why he and his cohorts have rushed the process. I commend him for taking this bold step forward, one that I hope takes root and grows in the years to come. With that in mind, I’d like to share two points about the new award that bother me:

1. The new award’s nominating committee is made up solely of festival programmers, and to me, that’s a pretty dicey move. We all know that festivals sponsor filmmakers and they benefit from associations when attending films go on to future success (like for example, win an award). On the other hand, programmers are the best placed people to see every doc, and to know what’s out there. Is there some way to balance the impact of the twelve programmers on the nominating committee? I’d love to see critics (representing different regions of the U.S.) have some say in this, but I assume few see more than twenty docs in a given year. No answers provided here by me, but I thought I’d raise the question.

2. You’ve got to lose IndiePix. You can’t have an awards ceremony sponsored by a company that has a vested interest in the results. IndiePix co-financed one of the shortlisted films, Billy the Kid, and although Schnack says the voting programmers were unaware of that fact, this just can’t fly. (I mean, what if a movie studio sponsored the Oscars… Wait, Academy Awards broadcaster ABC is owned by Disney! Never mind. You just can’t win.)
My quibbles with the new award probably fall in the category of “you can’t please everybody.” I hope this doesn’t come off as too much of a buzz kill. I do think Schnack and co. can wait until next year to deal with both of these issues. It’s just ironic to me that Schnack was so moved to start this alternative award largely because he thought the Academy shortlist came up short, and now I find this new list lacking as well. Operation Homecoming incorporates animation, visual effects, dramatic reenactments, seamless editing, exquisite cinematography and conventional documentary interviewing to tell incredibly important stories. In directing the film, I felt like first-timer Robbins was channeling Ken Burns, Ridley Scott and Robert Rodriguez. And I mean that in a good way.

So, to get back to those Oscar voters, whose ballots are due tomorrow: vote for Operation Homecoming. If you do, it’ll be another step forward for the great craft of documentary filmmaking, much like the establishment of this new award, which takes a much-needed step forward as well.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • StirnThePixMix

    FOREIGNID: 15357
    Just a little stir of the soup…
    Wasn’t Deep Water a 2006 release (at least IMDB lists it as such)? That would explain why it wasn’t on the Acadamy’s short list for 2007 (either that, or just plain poor judgement), and maybe explains why there is such a discrepancy between the two lists (New Awards includes movies from other years beside 2006)?

  • AJ Schnack

    FOREIGNID: 15358
    Tom – Thanks for writing about the new shortlist. I think we’re all bound to have a couple of films that we wish were on the list – for me, it’s HELVETICA and KING OF KONG – but I’m happy that the films that were chosen (individually through private voting) at least reflect both the creative and thematic breadth of nonfiction in 2007. I write a bit more in response over on my blog, but am glad for the debate and look forward to your thoughts on the nominees after they are announced on Sunday. Best – AJ