“It’s a mixture of curiosity and apprehension,” said Errol Morris of what will be his first-ever trip to the Oscars next month for his nominated documentary “The Fog of War.” “It hasn’t yet grown into out-and-out fear.”
In 1988, Morris’ groundbreaking documentary “The Thin Blue Line” was named best documentary of the year by the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. But the film failed to win an Academy Award nomination, an oversight that angered many of its champions.
Now, 16 years after that big Oscar diss -- Morris documentaries that have also been overlooked include the critical darlings “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” and “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” -- Morris has finally been welcomed into the Academy fold. “Fog,” released by Sony Pictures Classics, is a portrait of former Secretary of State Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War.
“The big surprise was in 1988,” recalled Morris, “with ’The Thin Blue Line.’ I had been on the phone with a reporter and the film had been named No. 1 by the most critics. I imagined that I’d be nominated that year. (After that) I’ve always expected not to be nominated. So I am delighted as well as surprised.”
“(Errol) must feel that the curse has been lifted,” said Sony Classics co-head Michael Barker. “It’s his first nomination in his entire career, out of seven movies.”
“Fog” faces one of strongest fields the category has ever seen -- films that range from Carlos Bosch and Jose Maria Domenach’s “Balseros” and Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect” to Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” and Bill Siegel and Sam Green’s “The Weather Underground.”
“This has been a great year for documentaries, and I feel very honored to be a part of that group,” said Kahn, whose film explores his relationship with his father, famed architect Louis Kahn. “Documentaries have always been the stories of real people,” he added. “It’s a wonderful time now that these stories are being seen and recognized by the industry.”
Jarecki pointed out that a documentary can “have an impact on reality.” In the case of his “Friedmans,” the film is helping to bolster the cause of one of the film’s subjects, Jesse Friedman, who is trying to reopen the case that put him behind bars on charges of child molestation.
“What moves me about (the nomination),” added Jarecki, “is the timing of this could impact a case that has been buried for 15 years. I spoke to Jesse as soon as I heard (the news). He was very happy and I think he feels that anything that can keep focus on these issues is critical to him.”
Morris’ nomination is more than just an Academy footnote. His omission in 1988, followed by the Academy’s failure to nominate Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” in 1989, led to an outcry, with critics accusing the Academy of favoring traditional, talking-heads documentaries over more adventurous films that wrestled with the form. “Roger & Me” also swept the NBR, National Society of Film Critics and critics groups in both New York and Los Angeles, and failed to get a nomination.
It was not necessarily the fault of documentarians in the Academy -- scattered among the various branches their voices were not always heard when the board of governors tried such moves as an ill-fated attempt to scuttle the short documentary category in the ’90s.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the Academy established a separate documentary branch.
“Documentarians are an integral part of the motion picture arts and sciences,” observed Arthur Dong, one of the chairs of the branch. “We asked the Academy to make some fundamental changes and it agreed. They just needed to be educated.”
Documentary revolutionAs a result, the first vetting of documentary submissions is no longer handled by whatever Academy members are free to volunteer but has become the responsibility of the branch members.
“Like all the other branches, the screening is done through a peer review process,” said Frieda Lee Mock, another of the branch’s chairs. “Historically, some of the best films were nominated, such as Barbara Kopple’s films, Rob Epstein’s films. The main difference now is that you have documentary filmmakers making the initial judgments.”
New rules also dictate that the films receive theatrical exhibition. Feature documentaries must play Los Angeles or New York for at least seven days, and once nominated they must either play a minimum two-day engagement in four additional cities or else they must be withheld from TV or the Internet for nine months following their nomination, a rule designed to encourage theatrical exposure.
“What we’ve been trying to do is really promote the notion that the Academy supports and honors theatrically released documentaries,” said Dong. “Simultaneously, the business for documentaries has exploded. I like to think that we have worked hand in hand with that explosion.”
“This is like a snowball,” said Spanish journalist and filmmaker Bosch, whose “Balseros” follows Cuban refugees trying to make it to the United States. “There are more documentaries every year, and you will have to do them better. The digital revolution has helped.”
Added Morris on the documentary revolution: “There is this awareness that docs don’t have to be one thing. More and more are receiving theatrical distribution. I think that the awareness of (documentaries) has changed over the years. It’s not just one beast, it’s a bestiary.”