Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have pronounced the theatrical documentary short dead ("The Long and Short of Oscar Brouhaha," Jan. 16), reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, in recent years the commercial venues for short documentaries have been increasing. In addition to large-format films such as Imax, hundreds of short documentary films are booked yearly into independent theater chains, art houses and national cultural centers--places such as the Metropolitan and Landmark Theaters, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pacific Film Archives, the Film Forum, the Smithsonian.
The proliferation of festivals such as the Aspen Shorts Festival, Sundance and the Palm Springs Festival--showcasing hundreds of short documentary films each year--attests to the vitality of this art form. Most are independent films that are not commissioned by TV, which has a preference for hour-length documentaries.
These festivals were recently eliminated as academy-qualifying venues for documentary films, which accounts for the lower number of submissions in the last few years. If festivals are restored as qualifiers--as they are for live-action short films in the academy--the number of documentary shorts submitted for Oscar consideration would rise.
Chuck Workman's assertion that a filmmaker "could get a nomination . . . by filming some interesting event" is also contradicted by the facts. In the last seven years, no event documentary has been nominated for best short documentary. The subjects of the 33 nominees range from civil rights to vicious dogs, and include Japanese American relocation, same-sex marriages, spousal abuse, disabilities, the Holocaust and nuclear poisoning. The importance of these topics reflects the seriousness of the filmmakers who explore them.
These short films took months, if not years, to complete by Academy Award-winning filmmakers like Charles Guggenheim, Bill Guttentag, Margaret Lazarus, Jessica Yu and Bill Couturie. Mr. Workman's comments demean not only an extraordinary body of work, but also filmmakers who have made major contributions to the art and craft of motion pictures.
Documentaries have historically been a forum for examining marginal groups and subcultures and social issues that producers feel are too controversial or painful to be remunerative at the box office. Classic short documentaries like "The River," "Night Mail," "Night and Fog" and the Academy Award-winning "Glass," "Why Man Creates" and Workman's own "Precious Images" have also been cinematic experiments in form and style.
Moreover, short documentaries have provided an opportunity for new filmmakers to gain recognition for their work and the attention and respect necessary to embark on more expensive and ambitious projects. Including short documentaries in the same category as feature documentaries will inevitably put them at a disadvantage--like comparing a short story to a novel, a song to a film score.
One of the mandates of the academy, established by its founders in Article II, is "to advance the arts and sciences of motion picture." By drawing attention to innovative and experimental work by new as well as established talent, the short documentary does just that. Abolishing the category may speed up the Oscar awards show, but it undermines the academy's mission.
Documentary short films are a vital, commercial and theatrical motion picture art form. Practitioners and lovers of the form can only hope that the academy will rescind its hasty decision and restore recognition of documentary short films as part of the academy's mandate.
Mark Jonathan Harris is a professor in the School of Cinema-Television at USC. "The Redwoods," a film he wrote and co-produced, won an Oscar for best short documentary in 1968, and "The Long Way Home," which he wrote and directed, won an Oscar for best feature-length documentary in 1998.