Oscars: This Year's Docs Are Breaking the Academy's Unwritten Rules in Unprecedented Numbers

The Academy once frowned on narrative devices like animation and re-enactments in nonfiction contenders… but no longer. 'He Named Me Malala,' 'Amy,' 'Listen to Me Marlon' and other strong contenders this year are defying previously obligatory conventions.
Illustration by: Wren McDonald

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Something unprecedented is happening in the world of documentaries: The inmates are taking over the asylum!

For decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has discredited itself by celebrating, almost exclusively, documentaries that address the same important subjects (the Holocaust, dead icons, etc.) and that are presented in the same conventional style (talking heads, archival footage, etc.). Don't get me wrong: Many previous best documentary feature Oscar nominees and winners are excellent films — but they simply do not represent the full spectrum of what's out there. It's no wonder generations of people have grown up thinking of documentaries as medicinal, boring movies to be dreaded.

Part of the reason the Academy has been so conservative in its doc choices is that the people making those choices have tended to be aes­thetically conservative white men. Before the creation of a documentary-specific branch in 2001, nominees were chosen by volunteers from other branches; unfortunately, most of the people who had the time and desire to participate were older Academy members who possessed a limited view of what a documentary could be and punished films that didn't conform to it. In the years since the creation of the doc branch, many of its members have harbored similar biases.

A doc featuring re-enactments? Unfaithful to the genre! (That's why Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, which got a man off of death row a year after its 1988 release, was snubbed.) A doc into which the filmmaker injects himself? Not the sort of thing a real filmmaker does! (Hence the exclusion in 1985 of Ross McElwee's Sherman's March and in 1989 of Michael Moore's debut, Roger & Me.) A doc that heavily employs animation? Stop trying to make it into a narrative! (This didn't help Brett Morgen's 2007 doc Chicago 10 and probably would have impeded Ari Folman's 2008 doc Waltz With Bashir, had it not been disqualified anyway for failing to meet then-new screening requirements.) A doc about nonwhite protagonists? Too exotic! (Tough luck for Steve James' Hoop Dreams and Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning.) A doc about an eccentric individual? Life's too short! (Sorry, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.)

There obviously have been exceptions to each of these "rules," but they were few and far between. And the rules, as much as anything, explain why 13 of the 25 greatest documentaries ever made, according to a poll conducted by the International Documentary Association in 2007, never were nominated for an Oscar; several weren't even shortlisted.

In the eight years since that poll, though, a wide variety of factors have contributed to doc films and filmmakers becoming stronger and more diverse than ever (few are the doc winners from the 1990s that would even be nominees today), and the Academy becoming more open and receptive to them than at any other time in its history.

The advent of cheap and lightweight digital equipment enabled anyone possessing the desire to make a doc to do so, bringing into the game a wider array of filmmakers. The omnipresence of reality television changed viewing habits and made the idea of spending a couple of hours watching strangers in action seem considerably more palatable to many people who previously wouldn't have delved into documentaries. The rise of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites gave strapped independent filmmakers new financing channels for interesting ideas. And the boom in the streaming of digital content — through Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and other services — provided a distribution mechanism for docs with a wider reach than any chain of art house cinemas, which only further exposed people to docs and, in so doing, created more doc viewers and creators. (It's a safe bet that infinitely more people have seen such doc gems as The King of Kong, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Crazy Love — none of which was acknowledged by the Academy — through these outlets than ever bought tickets to see them in theaters.)

Over that same period, the Academy has embarked on a concerted effort to diversify its membership. Forcing out the old guard would have involved rocking the boat, so it instead flooded its branches with fresh blood — none more so than the doc branch, which exploded in size because of an elimination of long-standing quotas. Of the 80 people invited to join the doc branch in the past three years, more than half are female and/or not white. Many of these people made docs and voted for docs without any deference to (or perhaps even knowledge of) the old "rules." And this refreshed group's perspective began to be reflected in the branch's selections, which included re-enactments (James Marsh's Man on Wire, if not Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell), animation (Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer, if not Mike Myers' Supermensch) and protagonists both nonwhite (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's Undefeated, if not Steve James' The Interrupters or Al Hicks' Keep on Keepin' On) and eccentric (Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, if not Sacha Gervasi's Anvil! The Story of Anvil).

This year, the remarkable thing is that the Academy's doc branch effectively may not have any choice but to nominate five films that defy previously obligatory conventions — because nearly every one of the year's strongest docs, among the 124 eligible for a nom, does so. (Of the six films nominated Nov. 4 for the International Documentary Association's best feature award — a hit-and-miss precursor for Oscar noms — more than half break at least one of the old rules.)

Animation features prominently in Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala (providing historical context for this profile of a young Nobel laureate), Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (taking viewers inside the private life of the late grunge rocker) and Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel's Meet the Patels (for interviews with the protagonist — Ravi).

Liz Garbus hired an actress to re-enact scenes from the life of late singer Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? (Meanwhile, The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's resumption of the story he first told in 2013's The Act of Killing, which features actual murderers re-enacting their own atrocities.)

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon recruited movie stars to provide voiceovers of old writings of the men at the center of their film Best of Enemies: Conservative Kelsey Grammer voiced conservative William F. Buckley Jr., while liberal John Lithgow voiced liberal Gore Vidal.

Amy, Asif Kapadia's intense look at the life and death of Amy Winehouse, and Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land, which highlights vigilantes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, shun talking-head interviews; the former is composed nearly entirely of archival or home footage, while the latter is entirely composed of you-are-there action footage.

Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon enables the late Marlon Brando to tell his own story, with a degree of candor he rarely demonstrated in his lifetime, by running images under audio recordings the actor made — and probably never expected to be shared — of himself expressing his innermost thoughts.

Racing Extinction, Louie Psihoyos' call-to-action about mankind's contributions to mass extinction, exposes people who illegally kill and sell the body parts of endangered species by employing CIA-like technology — button-cameras, underwater cameras, night vision cameras, etc. — resulting in a heart-pounding film that plays like a thriller.

Winter on Fire, Evgeny Afineevsky's Netflix-distributed capsule of the recent revolution in Ukraine, melds together footage shot by a team of protesters on a wide assortment of cameras, including iPhones.

Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground makes the frightening case that rape has become an epidemic on American college campuses — and supports its claims by superimposing statistics and sources onto the screen as they are made.

Crystal Moselle, while never seen in her film The Wolfpack, clearly participated in and influenced the events it chronicles since no outsider other than she ever had entered into the apartment of the film's protagonists, who themselves had rarely left it throughout their entire bizarre adolescence.

Nobody could have made Meru, a film about a group of mountain climbers' life-risking efforts to conquer a Himalayas peak never before summited, except one of the climbers — Jimmy Chin stepped up to the plate and co-directed it with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

And Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldthwait's film about his friend and fellow comedian Barry Crimmins, was made only after the two abandoned efforts to write the same story as a narrative film.

Ironically, because of the various creative methods employed by this year's crop of docs, several of them — get this — already are being made into narrative films. Suffice it to say, these are not your grandpa's docs.

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