If you’re in an Oscar pool this year (and I am), the safe money is probably on Amy – the approachable, watchable documentary about the rise and downfall of pop star Amy Winehouse. Netflix has two documentaries on the voter’s ballot this year – Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, and What Happened, Miss Simone? – both honourable mentions that likely won’t go much further than that. Amy’s biggest competition is Cartel Land. Its director, Matthew Heineman won the best director award and a special jury award for cinematography at Sundance. The film also garnered the outstanding directorial achievement in documentary from the Directors Guild of America, and the Courage Under Fire award from the International Documentary Association. Impressive credentials, but as you know, at the Oscars, the best film doesn’t always win.
I watched Cartel Land recently (it’s available on Netflix as well, though not produced by them – so is Amy) and it is a good film. Heineman seeks to illuminate a particular drug cartel in Mexico by showing us two vigilante groups on either side of the border. In Mexico, a doctor by the name of Jose Mireles leads the Autodefensas, simply a group of concerned citizens who are protecting their town from the invading cartel. Mexican police are corrupt and\or ineffective and these regular folks are trying their best to keep their streets and their children safe. In Arizona, a group of worrisomely racist jerks called Border Recon are led by Tim Foley. They claim to also be protecting their city from drug cartels though in fact they seem to just enjoy taking up arms against Mexicans of all and any kind. Though the drug cartel is obviously the villain in this scenario, Border Recon don’t exactly come across as the good guys. Heineman does a good job of showing us the desperation of the Mexican people who have repeatedly been failed by their government and now feel they have no choice but to rely on themselves and their neighbours, nearly every one of whom has a story – this fight is personal, not just principled.
But can this film topple the momentum built by the powerhouse Amy?
And not because it isn’t the better film. Amy was fine – it hit all the notes you expect it to. It just didn’t feel like it had more depth than her Wikipedia page. Yes her story has built-in tragedy, but I didn’t learn anything new and didn’t come away feeling enlightened. But what is a documentary’s purpose anyway?
Are documentaries supposed to be impartial? Michael Moore’s career seems to have debunked that one. Do we hold documentarians to the same standards we do journalists? Citizenfour won last year simply for being in the right place at the right time – director Laura Poitras was recruited by Edward Snowden to record those heady days when he blew the whistle, but she never aspired to more than observer, and she certainly went ultra-light on her treatment of Snowden. But historically the Academy tends to reward subject matter over style or substance, which often leaves me scratching my head on Oscar night.
In fact, the whole voting process for best documentary ensures that things are skewed. In 1994, a film called Hoop Dreams failed to receive a nomination when many critics thought it might be the best film of the year, period. When films are in the preliminary nomination stage, actors vote for actors, editors vote for editors, and documentarians vote for documentarians. You get to nominate your top 5, and at the time, you had to sign an affidavit that said you had actually seen all 5, and since documentaries don’t often get runs in theatres, they would put on special Oscar screening parties to get the films shown to a committee. But people would only attend the screenings they heard about, so the films needed good PR and ideally a whole studio behind them generating buzz and interest. The committees had a sneaky way of communicating during a movie – they carried flashlights. When someone grew bored of the movie, they shone their flashlight on the screen. If enough people did that, they turned it off. Hoop Dreams, a film still revered two decades later, was shut off after about 15 minutes. Voters never really saw it, and probably less than 5% of the Academy ever sees enough documentaries to honestly vote. Other documentary producers seized on this loophole. In 2000, Aruthur Cohn, producer of One Day in September boasted, “I won this without showing it in a single theater!” He showed it only in invitation-only screenings, which made it hard for voters to see all 5 nominations, thereby shrinking the voting pool and improving his odds.
It took until 2013 for the Academy to make some changes to the rules. Now documentarians can send screener DVDs to the homes of voting Academy members, but to even be eligible you have to have had your film screened in LA or NYC for at least a week, and reviewed by the NY or LA Times – a feat nearly impossible unless you have a lot of money backing you. The little guys have been all but shut out. But it means that anyone with money can toss their hat in the ring, which meant in 2013 there were 149 qualifying docs. People are only going to watch the ones they’ve already heard about, so you’d better have a good PR machine churning out your title. And now that these DVDs are arriving in their homes, the voters are favouring movies they can pop in and watch with the whole family. Every year since these new rules, it’s the most commercial film that wins (also true in the animation category – voters vote for whichever movie was a better babysitter for their kids; Pixar will take it home again this year when we all know Anomalisa was the better film). Show business documentaries are very popular. No surprise, but far from a meritocracy.
I’d like to say may the best documentary win, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even nominated. What was your favourite?
Don’t miss our other Oscar spotlights on cinematography, production design, costumes and hair & make-up. And be sure to follow us on Twitter so you can keep score in our pool @assholemovies – the Oscars are live this Sunday night.