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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, March-April 2007

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Writing this in the cusp between two high-stakes, high-profile events--the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards--I am awed by the blood, sweat and tears that documentary makers pour into their projects for a chance at those two brass rings. Over the past few years, docs that have played at Sundance--and docs that have garnered awards there--often find themselves in the running for Oscars a year later. This year, there are Iraq In Fragments and An Inconvenient Truth; last year, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomMurderball and March of the Penguins; the year before, Born Into BrothelsSuper Size MeTwist of Faith and Tupac: Resurrection.

Not that Sundance is the sole tastemaker and table-setter for the year--Jesus Camp and Street Fight both premiered at Tribeca, while Darwin’s Nightmare received its US premiere at Silverdocs. But you get a fairly good idea of how docs will play out in all arenas--the box office, the festival circuit, the awards season--from the kind of buzz they generate at Sundance. And if docmakers are fortunate enough to culminate their year with an Academy Award nod, well, that could be a career-maker--and “the difference between being in the red and being in the black,” as filmmaker Michael Tucker expressed to me.

So we salute the Final Nine--five features and four shorts--and congratulate them on the epic journey they have taken from, in two cases, the killing fields of Iraq to the red carpet of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. And we also examine, through various players in the documentary community, the process and cost of qualifying one’s documentary for Academy Award consideration. Nonfiction has been honored for 65 years by the academy, but it wasn’t until five years ago that the Board of Governors finally conferred “Branch” status to the documentary form--and this followed a number of occasions when the Governors voted to eliminate the Documentary Short Subject category, only to repeal their decision following strong responses from the community.

What’s at issue here is the theatrical documentary. On the one hand, the mission of the Academy is, in part, to support the art and craft of the theatrical motion picture. On the other hand, television sales often drive the documentary, and the distribution and exhibition infrastructure shifts and morphs on a monthly basis, so the theatrical documentary as we have known it may be a conglomerate of many different things. In what has become required reading these days--the January 8 issue of The New Yorker--David Denby offers a shrewd and scintillating examination of the sea change that has rocked the way we engage and experience cinema. “If the future of movies as an art form is at stake, we are all in this together,” he writes.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White