Oscars Documentary Race: It’s All About Blurred Lines

TheWrap Magazine: In documentary filmmaking, the distinctions are getting thinner between fiction and nonfiction, film and television

Oscar Documentary Race
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This story on the documentary feature race first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, whose “Fire at Sea” is competing for Oscars in both the documentary and foreign-language categories, shook his head when talking with TheWrap recently about the state of nonfiction filmmaking. “Right now, the thin line between documentary and fiction is really thinning, thinning, thinning,” he said.

“Which is interesting, and it’s what I love about documentaries. Documentaries have enormous space for experimenting, you know? The challenge of finding a new language, finding a new way of telling stories.”

He’s definitely right about that thin line, which is thinning and blurring in a variety of ways. It’s now blurred between fact and fiction, between documentary and narrative, between film docs and television docs.

“I think nonfiction filmmakers are excited to throw off convention and traditional expectation of length and form and style and to push themselves to challenge previously held notions of what makes a documentary,” filmmaker A.J. Schnack told TheWrap.

And all of those blurred lines are visible in this year’s awards race.

Category Blurring
Rosi’s film is a cinema vérité gem that uses what he calls “the language of cinema” to tell the story of the island of Lampedusa, where refugees by the thousands arrive on their way from Africa to Europe. It is one of four documentaries competing in the Oscar foreign language race.

The other straight docs are “Ukrainian Sheriffs,” Roman Bondarchuk’s look at two small-town law-enforcement officers in a region changing from Ukrainian to Russian control; and Pietra Brettkelly’s “A Flickering Truth,” which documents the revival of the Afghan film archives.

Luxembourg’s entry, “Voices From Chernobyl,” is a less straightforward doc; it’s a powerful viewing experience in which actors read eyewitness accounts of the nuclear disaster drawn from Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction book, while Pol Crutchen’s camera roams the deserted landscape of Pripyat, and the director also stages sometimes surreal tableau amidst the abandoned cityscapes.

Doc or not? It might belong in the following category…

Documentary / Narrative Blurring
Here’s where lines are almost erased. In the Oscar documentary race, for instance, Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” is competing for the big prize. The film chronicles indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s preparation to play newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on camera in 1974 — except that the film about Chubbuck for which Sheil is preparing doesn’t actually exist (unlike Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” in which Rebecca Hall plays the role).

Sheil is simply “preparing” for a “role” in a fake movie whose clips are never intended to be anything other than scenes in “Kate Plays Christine”; this “documentary” is documenting a fiction. But the Oscars say it’s a doc, and so did the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors.

Also eligible in those races (though not for the Oscars) is “All These Sleepless Nights,” a coming-of-age “doc” about two teens in Warsaw who often appear to be performing for the cameras. Director Michal Marczak developed scenes through improvisation, brought in a former girlfriend to begin a relationship with one of his subjects and says, “it’s up to other people if they want to call this a documentary.”

Then there’s the brain-teasing “Houston, We Have a Problem,” which is Slovenia’s entry in the Oscar foreign- language race. It’s a documentary about how a faltering NASA bought the entire Yugoslavian space program in the early ’60s in an effort to jump-start their own program — except that while it looks and acts like a doc, it actually just uses the nonfiction format to show how easily myths and conspiracies can be created and can spread.

Film and TV Blurring
If you like this year’s Oscar doc race, we’ve got some good news: Next year’s Emmy race will look very similar. Among the films that are now competing for Oscars and should soon be competing for Emmys: Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s “Audrie & Daisy” and Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s “Amanda Knox,” all on Netflix; “Defying the Nazis” on PBS; “Tickled,” “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” “Jim: The James Foley Story,” “The Music of Strangers,” “Everything Is Copy” and “Mavis!” on HBO; and “O.J.: Made in America” from ESPN.

This has been going on for a while: Three of the five Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees earlier this year–“Cartel Land,” “Winter on Fire” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” were subsequently nominated for Emmys, as was “The Hunting Ground,” which followed its Oscar song nomination by winning in that category at the Emmys.

Director Brett Morgen told TheWrap that he didn’t like the double-dipping when his doc “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” was campaigned for Emmys in the wake of its Oscar campaign. “I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think you should have to choose one or the other,” he said.

A few years ago, the Academy’s Documentary Branch passed new rules designed to keep TV entities like HBO from sneaking their films into theaters for a quiet one-week qualifying run before rolling them out for splashy television premieres. It didn’t stop the practice, though it perhaps reduced the number of films that HBO tried to qualify that way.

But in a field in which TV money has often been more easily accessible than film-studio money, the Academy rules can’t keep out docs that were financed by and made for television networks as long as it’s possible to qualify those films via theatrical runs. And particularly with the rise of Netflix, which really wants to win an Oscar and is willing to spend what it takes to get one, the field is awash in TV-bred films.

The biggest example of TV/film confusion this year is probably ESPN’s “O.J: Made in America,” which was financed by the network and aired as a five-part installment in its 30 for 30 series. Before its TV airing, director Ezra Edelman edited it into a single seven-and-a-half hour theatrical version that premiered at Sundance and had qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York; it got around the rule requiring four screenings a day, an impossibility given its length, by booking multiple screens in the same venues.

Will voters accept “O.J.” as a theatrical experience rather than a TV miniseries? Probably — and if so, the move will surely draw at least a measure of criticism. “I don’t know how it got in,” one Oscar-nominated documentary director told TheWrap. “And after this year, I bet they change the rules so something like that won’t happen again.”

Or maybe the Academy will simply give up and embrace those blurry lines. “More and more, support for new thinking [in nonfiction filmmaking] is coming from people who have traditionally been thought of as part of a television landscape: HBO, Netflix, ESPN, Showtime, etc.,” said Schnack.

“The Academy is certainly free to create rules for entry — but if these networks and platforms can push boundaries and fulfill the Academy’s eligibility requirements, I think it’s good for all involved.

“I know that if I were a member of the Academy, I’d want to be dead center within some of the most exciting developments in the nonfiction field, no matter where they were coming from.”

Read more of TheWrap Magazine’s The Race Begins Oscars Issue.

OscarWrap The Race Begins