By David Poland

A Look At The Doc Race

The documentary portion of the Academy (AMPAS) is evolving. If you look back at the last decade, you’ll see that up until a rule change for the 2002 awards season, being the rare popular documentary was a clear disadvantage in making it into the final five. In the last three Oscar seasons that has turned a bit, and in each of those seasons, three of the five final nominees have been popular docs and in each case (except for Fahrenheit 9/11, which chose to stay out of the race) the highest grossing doc of the year has made the nominations list.

Last year was a bit different than the years before, as both The Story of the Weeping Camel and Tupac: Resurrection were Oscar nomination surprises – in the case of the former because of questions of whether it was actually a doc and in the latter because it seemed like a very commercial, very corporate enterprise.

But as IDA put out their list of IDA Award nominees, causing aHollywood Reporter round-up and a sounding off of others, it seemed time to look at the bigger picture.

As Gregg Kilday points out, the IDA nominations are a rather unstable indicator of likely Oscar status. However, he did miss one thing. Last year’s Oscar nominee Tupac: Resurrection was actually an IDA nominee… but the year before, not last year. So two nominees in last year’s finals (the other being Born Into Brothels) were IDA nominees. And the year before, three of the five eventual Oscar nominees were first IDA nominated (Balseros,The Weather Underground and Capturing The Friedmans).

This year’s group of a dozen IDA nominees will likely kick 2 or 3 titles into Oscar contention as well:

  • The Boys of Baraka
  • Cowboy del Amor
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • Favela Rising
  • The Last Campaign
  • The Last Cowboy
  • Mad Hot Ballroom
  • Mission Accomplished
  • Murderball
  • Our Brand is Crisis
  • Street Fight
  • Why We Fight
  • Of course, three of these titles (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Mad Hot Ballroom, and Murderball) are very high-profile to start with. Why We Fight will apparently be disqualified for Oscar because of pre-theatrical TV showings.

    Also, the IDA’s doc qualifying series, formerly InFact, now DocWeek, ended up with four of the slots in the 12-film “short list.” The list from this year’s DocWeek is:

  • The Last Campaign
  • Ballets Russes
  • Touch The Sound
  • The Real Dirt On Farmer John
  • I Like Killing Flies
  • Darwin’s Nightmare
  • Lost Children
  • Occupation: Dreamland
  • Protocols Of Zion
  • 39 Pounds Of Love
  • Who Gets To Call It Art?
  • Family Portrait
  • God Sleeps In Rwanda
  • Positively Naked
  • Frozen Angels
  • If you had to pick from this list, the most obvious choices would be Ballet Russes, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Darwin’s Nightmare, and Protocols of Zion, based on buzz from the festival circuit. But it is also worth noting that only The Last Campaign made the IDA Nominees list after qualifying in DocWeek (as Born Into Brothels did last year). And Street Fight has the doc credibility of Rory Kennedy and Liz Garbus going for it.

    So beyond IDA, what is in play?

    Kilday points out the popular docs March of The Penguins and The Aristocrats. Jeff Wellsadds Rize to the list. But both have left out a barrel full of interesting monkeys. It is possible that one or two of these is actually not qualified. Researching the doc qualification process is virtually impossible with even releasing studios not always sure whether they’ve qualified.

    At the top of the list are (in alphabetical order):

  • The Devil & Daniel Johnston
  • Grizzly Man
  • Gunner Palace
  • Reel Paradise
  • The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which outgrossed both Grizzly Man andMurderball)
  • Also:

    • 6 Years Of Alcohol
    • Wall
    • William Eggleston In The Real World
    • Writer Of O
    • Year of the Yao

    Of course, I’m sure that I missed some title or another in all of this. Smoke-filled rooms still blur my vision.

    Just keep in mind, the committee brings it down to 12, then the next round brings it to 5 and then it truly becomes a popularity contest.

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    It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

    So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

    And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

    There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

    I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

    So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

    But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

    My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
    ~ Hampton Fancher

    “That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

    ~ David Simon