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Branching Out: The Academy Recognizes the Documentary

By Jason Lyon

Last month’s Academy Awards® telecast featured a first-ever tribute to documentaries. It was considered by many to be another hallmark in an ongoing campaign to increase recognition and respect for the documentary form within the ranks of the Academy. That effort has spanned the better part of a decade, and achieved its greatest success with the formation of an official Documentary Branch in January 2001.

In the 15 months since its formation, the Branch has continued to campaign for parity. While the other 13 branches of the Academy have three representatives each on the Board of Governors, the 110-member Documentary Branch has had to make do with one. Academy Award®-winner Frieda Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) was elected last summer as the first Governor of the Branch. It is expected that the Board will sanction two additional governors in the near future.

Even if documentarians have yet to receive full equality, it is a far cry from the days when they had to rely upon the kindness of the Governors of other branches for their very existence within the Academy. According to Arnold Schwartzman, Vice Chairman of the Documentary Executive Committee (and an Academy Award® winner for the 1981 documentary feature Genocide), twice in the last decade votes were taken to significantly alter the documentary’s presence at the Academy Awards. In 1992, the Board of Governors planned to eliminate the Documentary Short Film category altogether. Had Saul Bass, then a Governor of the Live Action Shorts Branch, not come to the aid of documentary filmmakers by representing their interests, the category would likely have been lost. Documentarians began in earnest to promote the art and craft of documentary within the Academy. A proposal was brought before the Board of Governors illustrating the continuing impact and importance of theatrical documentaries. Again, the governors of other Branches made the case on behalf of documentary filmmakers.

“It was about time we had official recognition within the Academy,” says Documentary Executive Committee member and filmmaker Arthur Dong, whose short film Sewing Woman was a 1983 Academy Award® nominee. “There’s no question that documentaries are an important part of the motion picture arts and sciences, and there’s no question about our contribution.” There seems to be a popular misconception among filmmakers that recent controversy over nominating procedures, as well as certain high-profile films passed over for nomination in the late 1990s, led directly to the creation of the documentary branch. Not so, says Documentary Governor Mock, though the attention did not hurt either.

“The newsworthiness of documentaries in the past five to 10 years influenced the Board of Governors’ decision,” Mock acknowledges. “The controversy lent itself to bringing attention to who we are. The Board of Governors had to really pay attention.”

Even if the creation of the Documentary Branch was not conceived as a response to complaints about prior years’ nominees, it may still provide a solution. Whereas previous nominations could be voted upon by any Academy member, they are now chosen solely by members of the Documentary Branch.

“My feeling about the past process is that voters tended to go for the subject matter probably more than the craft of filmmaking,” offers Schwartzman.

Mark Jonathan Harris, whose Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport won last year’s Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature, agrees. “There’s a bias to the Academy. The membership tends to be skewed older and somewhat more conservative. Historically, the members of the Academy have seemed to favor content over style.”

Doug Block, director of the 1999 documentary feature Home Page and founder of the D-Word Community, an online discussion group for documentary professionals, wonders what effect the Academy nominations might have on the overall state of documentary filmmaking. “I don’t sense that the Academy nominating committee considers documentary an art form,” he says. “I think they consider it something that should be good for you. They reinforce the notion in the public’s mind that documentaries are educational films. It’s not creating excitement around documentary as a film form, which is unfortunate.”

Harris hopes that will change as the Documentary Branch grows. “I think there was a bias against films that did well commercially, that to some extent, even under Branch membership, still persists. We are actively involved in an outreach effort to bring in documentary filmmakers who have not been involved in the Academy before. We’re trying to get younger documentary filmmakers into the Branch.”

Arnold Schwartzman senses a change already. “I found that in this year’s batch [of nominees], there’s a real break from the traditional approach, which I think is very refreshing. It definitely is breaking away from the traditional mold.”

With all the work that’s gone into achieving greater stature, were Documentary Branch members especially well treated at this year’s Academy Awards? Arthur Dong, for one, wasn’t there to find out. “You get a better seat at home,” he laughs.

Alas, perhaps documentarians still have a way to go before they achieve full equality with their movie star brethren in the Academy, but they are surely off to a good start.


Jason Lyon is a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. His e-mail is