As we await the verdict on which of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar will be the lucky winner come February 27, for the first time in several years the race is genuinely open, with at least three documentaries in with a shot at taking the big prize.
By the time Oscar night rolled around last year, it was fairly obvious that The Cove would be taking the honor. The year before, it was almost a non-event when Man on Wire won, given how far ahead of the field it was in terms of trophies and acclaim prior to the Academy Awards.
But this year, at least three of the five nominated docs – Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, and Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop – carry a strong chance of bringing home the gold, for a variety of different reasons.
Several factors tend to play on a documentary’s Oscar chances, the first of which is a title’s performance on the awards circuit in the run-up to the final shortlist’s announcement.
When the 15-strong documentary longlist was announced last November, Banksy’s controversial film was seen as a generous inclusion to the list, with a range of critics calling into question the actual existence of one of its central characters, and was not expected to make the final five. Since then, however, the film has won over a number of crucial juries and now builds major momentum in the run-up to the February awards show.
It picked up the Grierson Award for Most Entertaining Documentary in November, followed by top doc awards from the Washington DC Area Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Online and the Online Film Critics Society. Then, last month, it won the outstanding achievement in non-fiction feature filmmaking award at the Cinema Eye Honors in New York.
There is every chance its hot streak could continue and take it in a late burst to the finish line. Adding to its cause is the fact that its director is the attention-grabbing, celebrity provocateur Banksy. The street artist is unlikely to show up in person, but you never know. Either way, his shortlist inclusion has already generated a lot of press.
Despite its momentum, working against Gift Shop is the fact that the Academy often looks to the documentary awards to represent the big issues affecting society – war, over-fishing, gun crime, global warming and so on. As such, docs focusing on more niche concerns often struggle.
On this basis, Gift Shop loses ground and Inside Job (which focused on the economic crisis) and Restrepo (the Afghanistan war) gain space. This is also perhaps why Alex Gibney’s Client 9, ultimately a documentary about a smaller topic – a sex scandal involving New York governor Eliot Spitzer – dropped away from the final list of nominees.
There can often be a sense with the Oscars that what’s deemed as the “worthiest” doc – rather than the best made or the most financially successful – will win in the doc feature category, and no one would say the rise of the street art movement, interesting as it is, is as much of a big ticket issue as those tackled in Inside Job or Restrepo.
Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the best of a number of Afghan war docs in consideration, beating out The Tillman Story and Janus Metz’s acclaimed Danish documentary Armadillo, which missed out on the longlist altogether.
Through 2007 doc winner Taxi To the Dark Side (and, incidentally, last year’s big fiction winner The Hurt Locker), the Academy has recognized the war in Iraq. However, it has yet to recognize the Afghanistan conflict – a war that has cost the lives of more than 1,400 U.S. servicemen to date – and this boosts Restrepo‘s chances.
However, though it has won at Sundance, Restrepo lags behind both Inside Job and Gift Shop in the trophy stakes. Looking at recent kudosfests, Inside Job has won big, picking up awards from the New York Film Critics and the Southeastern Film Critics, with Charles Ferguson winning the Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Director of a Documentary.
It also benefits from the weight of Sony Pictures Classics’ marketing push behind it, as well as the general public’s continuing anger towards the economic downturn and the bailout of the banks.
So which for the prize? While Gift Shop‘s late surge has been impressive, ultimately its choice as an Oscar-winner would be deeply controversial. Much discussion in the media has centred on whether the film is strictly a documentary at all, with many suggesting that the film’s central character, Mr. Brainwash, is a hired actor portraying a character created by Banksy.
If that is eventually revealed to be the case, Gift Shop should be ineligible for its category. While undoubtedly a hugely entertaining film – which I loved and strongly recommend to all – the whole point of a good documentary is that it is a fascinating, enthralling story which is true.
This past year we’ve seen eyebrows raised over other projects, including Catfish and I’m Still Here – the latter, eventually revealed to be a mockumentary by director Casey Affleck. It is fantastic that people are exploring the possibilities of the factual form, but when it ceases to be factual… then it is simply not a documentary.
The “is it real or isn’t it” issue may well be the deciding factor that pushes the Academy in Inside Job‘s direction. Inside‘s director Ferguson has history as a previous nominee, for 2007′s No End in Sight, which works in the film’s favor. In addition, the doc has a big name narrator in the form of actor Matt Damon, which may hold sway with the Academy.
As for the other two contenders, Josh Fox’s Gasland and Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, both are fine docs, but ultimately are not in the same league as the frontrunners, in terms of award wins, campaigning or momentum.
So, though I’m hovering between Restrepo and Inside Job, ultimately I’ll put my money on Charles Ferguson’s economic downturn tour-de-force. Roll on February 27.