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: Let the Awards Season Begin

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Leaves have fallen and there’s a nip in the air… which means, it must be movie awards season. Yes, in recent weeks, we’ve seen nomination lists released from three outlets: the International Documentary Association, the Gotham Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors. Here are their nominations for Best Doc Feature:

Cinema Eye Honors
Armadillo — Director: Janus Metz
The Oath — Director: Laura Poitras (POV 2010)
Exit Through the Gift Shop — Director: Banksy
Marwencol — Director: Jeff Malmberg
Last Train Home — Director: Lixin Fan (POV 2011)

Gotham
12th & Delaware — Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Inside Job — Director: Charles Ferguson
The Oath — Director: Laura Poitras
Public Speaking — Director: Martin Scorsese
Sweet Grass — Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Lisa Barbash

IDA
Exit Through the Gift Shop — Director: Banksy
The Oath — Director: Laura Poitras
Steam of Life — Directors: Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen
Sweet Grass — Directors: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Waste Land — Director: Lucy Walker

Hmmm. Interesting; have you noticed what’s missing? Waiting for Superman, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Restrepo, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, The Tillman Story. . . Wow, what are missing are many of the most prominent, most buzzed-about documentaries of the year, by some of the most respected doc directors working today. The only one of the movies nominated above that got significant critical attention and mainstream press is Inside Job. I suppose a case could be made for Exit, but outside of the festival coverage, I think you’d find a lack of awareness of this film, even amongst The New Yorker-reader set.

What are we to make of this? I’ll submit a multiple-choice answer.


A) Award ceremonies are political — even these small, indie ones. Just like the Oscars are a popularity contest (steered by adept marketing strategies), these smaller venues are trying to champion the films they think are great, but also that they believe will be overshadowed by the Oscars. In other words; they feel that these films are most worthy, if not necessarily the best. And they figure that those more popular films will get their due during Oscar season. (Cinema Eye copes with this issue by creating an “Audience Award” which includes all of those more popular docs [Superman, Tilman, Restrepo, Rivers and Job], which is a clever way of covering all bases.)

B) The nominated films really are great, so who cares if they don’t get mainstream buzz? We’re talking quality here.

C) A + B

I’d choose C. I think the argument could be made that these insiders are missing out on an opportunity to build a consensus around certain films, which would give them a stronger push for Oscar season. Of course, that would assume some collusion, but I believe there’s got to be some hive-mind thinking going on here. Still, to this point, there is indeed one documentary that gets positioned as a favorite, the only one that got nods from all three: The Oath. So let’s keep an eye out on how this POV (yeah!) film fares. I hope that a consensus is indeed being built around it. Also to note are that Sweet Grass and Exit each got two nods, so they are each getting some momentum going.

Just a final note: it will be interesting to see how holocaust doc, A Film Unfinished, and cutesy kid doc, Babies, will do during awards season. They’re catnip to Academy voters, but less so to doc insiders and critics.

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