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: What Happened with the Docs at Oscar 2010?

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Hollywood’s biggest night was not, sadly, documentary film’s finest hour. The 2010 Oscar ceremony will be most remembered for how The Hurt Locker trumped Avatar, and how Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director award. But, for documentary fans, it may be remembered for a couple of missed opportunities.

Things certainly didn’t start well for me, as my cable provider, Cablevision, is at war with ABC. This battle blocked the telecast for the first 15 minutes — we were tuned in just as the first award was being presented. That was a stark reminder that this show is, of course, all about money. But once the awards started rolling, I was pleased to see that I had correctly predicted the doc winners — Music by Prudence in the Short category, and The Cove in the Feature category.

A billion people watching you on a live telecast: it’s an artist or activist’s dream. Alas, both speeches were disasters. First, when Music by Prudence director Roger Ross Williams was in the middle of his speech, his producer Elinor Burkett cut in, saying, “Let a woman speak,” before she reeled off an inarticulate ramble. The two looked so incompatible and bizarre together, it left folks scratching their heads. Fortunately, Salon got the scoop, which is that the two filmmakers really have been at war over the film, and they no longer speak to each other. The brunt of the disagreement appears to have been over credit and creative control. Surprise, surprise… The filmmakers had not discussed how they would handle the awards speech and it showed. It was awkward, to say the least, and many on the Internet think of Burkett as having “Kanyed” the moment — which is to say, made an ass of herself.

When The Cove won, producer Fisher Stevens looked truly overjoyed, which was nice. But then he made a rather ineffective and uninteresting speech before dolphin-rights activist Ric Barry flashed a “Text ‘dolphin’ to 4144″ sign, and ABC turned off the mic. The result? Director Louie Psihoyos never got to speak, and incredibly, the word “dolphin” was never even uttered. What a missed opportunity! Shame on ABC for cutting the shot and the mic, but these guys bungled this so badly. I read on the New York Times blog and elsewhere how Psihoyos was prepared to deliver a statement to really capitalize on the moment and help end the dolphin slaughter. What exactly went wrong — maybe Barry pulled the sign out too early — I don’t know.

Ah, the way of a documentary filmmaker is not an easy one. The spoils are few. The spoilers are many. And the stakes can be so high: it’s much more attractive to tear up and say, “You like me, you really like me,” than it is to say, “Make this world a better place.”

I may be wrong, but I think I saw Daniel Ellsberg, the subject of POV’s The Most Dangerous Man in America, in the audience, heartily applauding The Cove’s win. A class act like that — one who can fight for justice and keep the cameras from turning away — is hard to come by. Too bad he didn’t get his moment at the podium, to show these “winners” how to win 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
  • joeschmoe

    FOREIGNID: 23053
    didn’t like “I AM WOMAN” played by the orchestra when Kathryn Bigelow won. She won best director, not best “female” director. sheesh!

  • Brittany

    FOREIGNID: 23089
    Yeah, I agree – “I Am Woman” being played is kind of patronizing. Oh, WOW a woman won! Like there are no talented women in film. It’s so over-the-top you can’t help but wonder maybe she won not only because she’s a talented woman but with the added bonus it would be a popular hype item. Which would mean – no matter how deserving she is – as a woman she’s still being used. Sorry, I don’t mean to detract from her achievement – I just think that’s what playing the song did.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 23102
    I’ve got to agree, it was a simple-minded music selection. Just as simple minded as cutting to Morgan Freeman for a reaction shot when “Precious” won an award.