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Putting a Little English on It, British Academy Film Awards an Oscar Bellwether

By Andrea Grillone

From Kevin Macdonald's 2004 film Touching the Void, the only documentary to have won any of the top Orange British Academy Film Awards in the past 15 years

For documentary filmmakers, awards shows and festivals are vital tools in helping audiences find documentary films. Winning an award always makes a huge difference, and can sweeten a distribution deal, help ensure a television broadcast or increase DVD sales.  

The Orange British Academy Film Awards, which take place right before the Oscars, are regarded, along with the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards, as reliable forecasters of possible Oscar glory. They are presented by BAFTA (, which stands for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and are considered very important among the filmmaking community, especially British filmmakers.   Awards can tilt the balance in the Brits' favor against the huge marketing dollars of American studio films.  

Britain holds an important place in documentary film history. Film historian Jack Ellis dates the development of documentary film as we now define it to late 1920s Britain and John Grierson, the founder and leader of the British documentary movement. Every film student knowsNight Mail (1936), a factual, yet moody film about the collection and delivery of mail on a night train from London to Scotland. BAFTA has benefited from that documentary tradition; it owes the existence of its own headquarters at 195 Picadilly in London to Queen Elizabeth's donation of her royalties from Richard Cawston's 1969 documentaryRoyal Family.

But surprisingly, the prestigious Orange British Academy Film Awards don't have a single documentary category. Documentary films compete against narrative films in all categories. According to Oscar-winning producer David Parfitt (Shakespeare in Love), this allows superior documentary films to really shine. "We are delighted that documentary filmmakers continue to compete equally in the Orange British Academy Film Awards," he says via e-mail. "Touching the Void [the documentary film by Kevin Macdonald] was a worthy winner in 2004, and we look forward to more stunning examples of the craft in future years."

The win forTouching the Void, about two British mountain climbers facing death, is impressive, considering that in its category (Best British Film), it was up againstCold Mountain (who knew this was aBritish film?),Girl with a Pearl Earring, Michael Winterbottom'sIn This World and the romantic dramaLove Actually. As it turns out,Touching the Void is the only documentary film to have won any of the top awards (Best Film and Best British Film) in the past 15 years. By contrast, the Academy Awards have two categories devoted to documentary filmBest Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short Subjectwhich has helped audiences find such films asBorn Into Brothels,The Fog of War andInto the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.  

BAFTA makes up for this lack of support on the film side with its annual British Academy Television awards, which is roughly equivalent to the Emmys in the United States. Out of 25 awards, seven are specifically for documentaries, news programs and nonfiction programming. The Flaherty Award for Documentary honors documentary films shown as "one-offs" on television. Recent documentary film award winners in this category includeThe Orphans of Nkandla; Lager, Mum and Me; Feltham Sings; Kelly and her Sisters;and100% White (True Stories).

BAFTA has also honored documentary filmmakers with special awards and tribute evenings. Roger Graef (award winner forFeltham Sings), who perfected the "fly on the wall" documentary technique for several films on police force and issues of criminality, was awarded an Academy Fellowship, the organization's highest honor, in 2004. Nick Broomfield, the filmmaker behindAileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killerand the 1998 documentaryKurt and Courtney,was honored in a tribute evening in March 2005.

Founded immediately after World War II by directors David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIII), Carol Reed (The Third Man) and actor Charles Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution), the BAFTA Awards honor the best in film, television, children's programming and video games shown in the United Kingdom every year. Voting membership was capped in 2005 at 6,500 members in order to allow BAFTA to focus on recruiting members from areas that it considers underrepresented, mainly in the technical fields. To become a member, one must have spent four years as a working professional in film, television or video games; have a reference from a current member; and be able to show a significant contribution to the industry.

Nominees and award winners for the film awards are chosen through a combination of membership votes, qualified industry chapters and specially selected juries. Feature films must be at least 60 minutes in length, receive their first public exhibition as a theatrical release and be exhibited publicly to a paying audience in a cinema for seven consecutive days in order to qualify. Films must have been released in the UK during the 2005 calendar year, but can also qualify if screened for Academy members prior to December 31, have a pre-release screening run in the UK of seven consecutive days prior to mid-January and officially open prior to March 31. Films from any country are eligible for all awards except three devoted specifically to British film and filmmakersthe Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, the Carl Foreman Award (special achievement by a writer, director or producer on their first film) and Short Film.  

For the television awards, programs must have had their original transmission in the UK during 2005. The academy's television members cast their votes among all performance and production entries, and those that attract the most votes are then scrutinized further by juries selected by the Academy Television Committee to be balanced in age, gender, experience, ethnicity and, according to the BAFTA website, "broadcast allegiances."

In addition to the award shows, BAFTA also holds a number of educational events at its headquarters related to documentary film. Docudrama has always been a big part of the British documentary world, and last May, the academy held an event called "Other Voices, Other Lives:Death of a Princess," where it screened Antony Thomas' docudrama about the execution of a Middle Eastern princess, first televised in 1980. In January, "Is This Story True, Is That Picture Real?" explored the boundaries between documentaries and drama, and featured BAFTA award-winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald along with such narrative filmmakers as Ken Loach, who is known for his gritty, socially conscious realism. These events, along with monthly screenings of films, help foster interest in documentary filmmaking among the British public.