Controversy and the Academy Awards are inextricably linked. But in recent times, the best documentary selections seem to have stirred up more than their share.
Last year, the uproar centered on the exclusion of "The Thin Blue Line" from the list of Oscar contenders. This year, the protest took the form of a letter sent, two days ago, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expressing "shock and outrage" over the omission of "Roger & Me"--Michael Moore's popular, if controversial, look at the impact of GM layoffs in Flint, Mich. The film has grossed more than $5 million since it was released Dec. 20.
Signed by 44 film makers including Haskell Wexler ("Medium Cool"), Robert Young ("Triumph of the Spirit") and Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay"), the letter called for a restructuring of the academy's nominating committee as well for a write-in vote to remedy the exclusion of what it termed "this year's most visible, biting documentary."
The group calls for the academy to change its selection system so that the nominations reflect "the best, most diverse and innovative films in the field."
Under the current system, most Oscar nominations are made by professional groups within the movie industry: the directors branch of the academy nominates directors; cinematographers select cinematographers and so on.
But, because there is no documentary branch, nominations in that category are currently made by a committee composed of about four dozen writers, actors, editors and some documentary film makers. The committee is also dominated by persons who live in the Los Angeles area and, say the critics, is not representative of the nation-wide documentary film community.
This year the committee screened 59 films. It took six hours a week over a two-month period to see all the movies so few people with busy schedules are drawn to the task in the first place.
"What you have here is a volunteer committee of good-hearted but fairly out-of-touch senior citizens acting as a roadblock against the advancement of those films which don't conform to its old-fashioned standards," says Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, whose syndicated column appearing this week outlines some of the alleged inequities in the selection process.
"Awards are everything to a documentary film," Ebert says. "Without them, they can't get distributed."
The group of film makers who wrote to the academy want the same kind of treatment that other professionals in the industry receive.
"Documentary nominations should be made by active documentary film makers--a panel of peers across the nation," says documentarian Pamela Yates, a friend of Moore's who drafted the letter. "Hollywood is only the feature-film capital."
According to Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy, prospects for the creation of a documentary branch of the academy are dim.
"There are three board members for each of the 12 branches of the academy--and enough examples of unwieldy boards around town to convince us that we're already pushing the outer edges of the envelope. We've tried to revise the system, however, limiting membership on the executive committee to a period of nine years to insure some turnover and expanding the membership of the screening committee to dilute the impact of any individual."
One individual in question is Mitchell Block, an influential member of the documentary screening committee since 1979. Though Block was not directly mentioned in the Yates letter, an accompanying press release alluded to the fact that his firm, Direct Cinema--a Los Angeles distribution company specializing in documentary films--represents three of the five feature-length documentaries nominated this year, as well as one of the shorts.
Though Block declined to be interviewed for this article, a Direct Cinema company spokesman acknowledged that, over the past 10 years, the company has handled about 20% of all documentary nominees and 35% of the winners. As required by the academy, Block has submitted a conflict-of-interest statement each year and has refrained from participating in discussions about any of his projects.
"Mr. Block has never tried to lobby for his films," says Chuck Workman, an Oscar-winning documentary film maker ("Precious Images") who sits on the committee. "As far as I know, his behavior this year has been good across the board. The members are quite independent-minded and would be offended at the suggestion that he in any way affected their votes."
Even Haskell Wexler, one of the signers of the protest letter, is uncomfortable with the suggestion that the statistics are a sure sign of guilt. "I don't know the man, but Mr. Block may just be very good at his business . . . someone with good taste."