December 1, 1990

From the IDA, Winter 1990

With this year's announcement of the Oscar nominations in the documentary category comes an outcry over the omission of Roger and Me, undoubtedly the year's most visible and notorious documentary. The larger issue, however, is not whether Roger and Me should have been nominated, but rather the makeup and voting procedure s of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Committee, which has so often overlooked important and tradition-shattering films. Consider the Academy's history of startling omissions: Dear America, Sherman's March, Seventeen, Mur Murs, Soldier Girls, Koyaanisqatsi, 28 Up, Burden of Dreams, Tokyo­ Ga, Sans Soleil Shoah, and The Thin Blue Line, to nan1e just a few from the recent past.

For years the Committee has voted with its heart for meritorious subject matter over cinematic imagination. This confusion of content and technique ultimately reinforces the viewpoint that the documentary is a worthy, but unexciting, art form. In reality, the opposite is true. By and large, non-fiction film has been responsible for pushing forward most of the cinematic boundaries in the eighties.

The Academy has often been criticized for the fact that , unlike other categories, documentaries are not chosen by a peer group. Actors nominate actors, directors directors, editors editors, etc., but the Documentary Committee is made up of members from other branches of the Academy, a relatively small proportion of whom are non-fiction filmmakers. This is certainly part of the problem. Of course, it is not axiomatic that more documentarians would choose more complex filmic explorations, but a re­ examination of the qualifications for Committee membership would be a good place to start the process of reform . A reduction in size from its current 40-plus members is another. And clearly there is a pressing need for the Committee to reflect a broader range of attitudes and tastes.

The Academy is also currently being forced to consider charges of conflict of interest within the Committee membership. In an open letter to the film community , 45 filmmakers, including many former Oscar winners and nominees, protested the omission of Roger and Me, and point ed to the Committee's history of allowing distributors with financial interest in entered films to sit on the panel. Despite assertions that distributor-members have not exerted undue influence in decision making, even the appearance of conflict of interest undermines the credibility of the award. Unfortunately, this year, notable feature documentaries have been caught in the cross-fire.

The importance of the Oscar should not be underestimated . Among the few high profile honors accorded the documentary, the Academy Awards are unquestionably the most visible and commercially meaningful. But only through reform of the nominating committee will it be possible for the Oscar to more accurately reflect the significant and innovative achievements of the form.