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Oscar Mired 'Sir! No Sir!' Pulls Out of Award Consideration

By David Zeiger

The sit-down strike of 27 prisoners at the Presidio Army Stockade following the killing of a prisioner by a guard. From Zeiger's Sir! No Sir!. Courtesy of National Archives

In the swirl of debate and acrimony surrounding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's (AMPAS) ever-evolving rules for qualification for Academy Award consideration in the Documentary Feature category, my experience with the feature documentary Sir! No Sir! is, I believe, particularly illuminating.

Let me say up front that I am not comfortable in the role of complainer. In truth, I have no quarrel with the stated intent of the rules preventing producers and networks from getting Academy Awards for films that were produced for television and never intended to be seen by theater audiences. Yes, networks have "manipulated" the system by meeting the minimal requirements to get a film qualified, only to air it quickly after the awards are announced. So have producers. I know because I have played the game myself, and I'm not proud of that.

So, setting aside the rather bizarre contention that there is something particularly egregious about documentary producers playing the system (Hello? Is Harvey Weinstein in the house?), I understand the need for the Academy to insure that the award is only available for films that have genuinely been produced for theater audiences in the United States.

And by that definition, my film Sir! No Sir! should have no difficulty qualifying in the Documentary Feature category. But the definition is deceptive, and the film will not qualify. From the beginning, my goal for Sir! No Sir! was a US theatrical release. The startling story of the thousands of American GIs who actively opposed the Vietnam War has been buried for decades, and needs to be brought into the public consciousness now more than ever. In my view, that could best be accomplished with a film that is seen by audiences and critics throughout the country in the public, collective context that only a theatrical release provides. While I am not particularly enamored with the "sanctity of the theatrical experience" that the Academy says it is protecting, the emotional power of seeing a film on the big screen can't be matched. I have never wavered from that; the film opens in theaters in early April through Balcony Releasing.

But of course there's that little matter of funding. After accumulating the requisite number of rejections, I teamed up in 2004 with Louise Rosen, who does a great job of arranging pre-buys and co-production deals between documentary producers and international television networks. We went to the Hot Docs Documentary Forum in Totonto, where we quickly made a deal with ARTE France and ABC Australia for production of a 52-minute version of the film for broadcast in those countries in April 2005, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Here, finally, was the perfect solution. I could underwrite the feature film with this shorter version, which would only be seen on foreign television, and open the feature in theaters in the States long before it was on US television, which should, by any logic, qualify it for Academy consideration.

But here's the rub: While the Academy Award in general only applies to films released in the United States, the rules for documentary require that it not be seen on television anywhere in the world , either before or for nine months after an American theatrical release. And this applies as well for a shorter, re-worked version such as what I made to raise money for the feature.

In other words, I was perfectly free to license a TV version of my film to Australia. But in order for the feature to qualify for an Academy Award, I would have had to forbid them from broadcasting that version until nine months after the feature opened in theaters in the United States. The Academy leadership seems to believe that Australian TV should understand how helpful an Academy Award is and accept that requirement. The American chauvinism of that stand is stunning, and had I made it a condition for licensing the film, Australia and every other country in the world would have justifiably told me to jump in the ocean (we have since made several more foreign TV sales of the first, 52-minute film to Spain, Finland and BBC Storyville ).

Again, I have no beef with the intent of making sure the Academy Award is available for theatrical documentaries. I am also well aware that there are many in the Academy who would just as soon eliminate the documentary category altogether, claiming it has become a television format, and that the Governors representing the Documentary Branch have a tough job of holding those folks off.

The Academy is a Hollywood institution that stands firmly for the separation of film and television, and as such it ignores the reality that international television has emerged this past decade as a strong source of support and funding for independent documentaries. In practice, the Academy refuses to help filmmakers use that resource for films heading to US theaters. Had I gone by the Academy's current rules, Sir! No Sir! would never have been made, and it certainly would not be opening in theaters next year.

How is that protecting the "sanctity of the theatrical experience?"