Should the Oscars Judge Documentaries on Cause or Craft?

I didn’t get to listen to this episode of “The Brian Lehrer Show” on the State of Documentary Film until after I’d written my “Kings of Pastry” review. Turns out, guest Matt Zoller Seitz (of Salon) also had something to say about the fact Frederick Wiseman has never received an Oscar (he also mentions the Maysles, noting they were finally nominated in 1974). Lehrer also mentions Pennebaker when addressing Direct Cinema, and this leads to Seitz reiterating that the Academy is always behind on what’s going on with the documentary mode. That’s why it’s surprising that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was nominated (but not surprising why it will lose). Perhaps Banksy will be honored down the line if he continues making docs?

The initial discussion on the episode, which also features Slate‘s Dana Stevens, is what documentaries should be judged on, cause or craft. Entertainment value is added in there, too. I have to admit that while the Academy had gained a reputation for honoring films based on their cause, particularly in the days when it seemed to prefer Holocaust films and stuff like “Born Into Brothels,” but recently they’ve also been awarding stuff with greater storytelling craft, like “The Cove,” which is still a cause film, and “Man on Wire,” which almost lacks an issue altogether. But it is true, they don’t necessarily look at craft, not in the way of seeing what’s fresh and new to the mode. But then, do they really do that with any of their categories?

For my vote for and predictions of the doc Oscars, see my Doc Talk column at Cinematical.

One last thing: playing clips of documentaries on a radio show is a good way to test if it’s a great piece of non-fiction cinema. “Inside Job” is obviously too talky, and you can tell exactly what is happening in that scene, whereas the “Restrepo” clip is not so easily defined aurally. Because it’s a great work of visual storytelling. And I think “Waste Land” would be nearly as hard to play adequately with only the audio.

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About Christopher Campbell
I am a blogger for Documentary Channel and Movies.com, where I write the Doc Talk column. I prefer real stories to fake ones. I tweet here: @thefilmcynic

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