Oscars: Two Mini-Controversies Hit Documentary Race

Journalist-filmmaker Paula Bernstein took a jab at CNN's film 'Three Identical Strangers' for borrowing its title from her 2007 memoir; meanwhile, rumors of nepotism broke out over at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association after Sandi Tan's 'Shirkers' got its best doc award Dec. 9.
Courtesy of Sundance
'Three Identical Strangers'

The usually staid doc category is turning into this year's dishiest Oscar race.

For starters, there was the mini-controversy over Three Identical Strangers, Neon/CNN's film about an infamous study conducted in the early 1960s in partnership with Dr. Peter Neubauer and the Louise Wise adoption agency that separated twins (and one set of triplets) and put them up for adoption with different families. Journalist-filmmaker Paula Bernstein (once a TV reporter with bylines in both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety), who had written a book with her twin sister, Elyse Schein, on being part of the experiment, took a jab at Tim Wardle's film for borrowing its title from their 2007 memoir, Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.

"Titles can’t be copyrighted, but there’s law and there’s ethics and doing what’s right,” she wrote Dec. 10 in a (since deleted) tweet. “So a film about the dubious ethics of separating twins and the trauma that results … has resulted in more trauma. Also, there shouldn’t be ‘spoiler alerts’ for documentaries. These are real people’s lives.”

Reached by THR and asked to explain her side, Bernstein, who also tweeted that she declined to participate in the doc, declined further comment and said that she deleted the tweets because “I don’t want any attention.”

Meanwhile, questions of nepotism arose after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Sandi Tan's Shirkers its best doc award Dec. 9. Tan is married to LAFCA member (and NPR and Vogue critic) John Powers. "John brought it up before our vote," says LAFCA president Claudia Puig, noting that Powers left the room during the actual ballot casting.

Finally, there’s Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, a 12-years-in-the-making examination of race, class, domestic violence and skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois. Liu recently let slip to THR that he had left out a critical fact about its central subject, skater Zack Mulligan: He's a Trump supporter. "It was like he was regurgitating all of these things that you hear on Fox News," says Liu. "It would've polarized [the movie] too much."

Meanwhile, filmmakers on each of the docs received good news Monday when the Academy unveiled its documentary shortlist: All three films made the cut.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.