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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, May / June 1995

By Peter Stuart

If you spent the past three months prowling about the ruins of the ancient city of Ubar in Oman, you might have missed the brouhaha about the documentary Hoop Dreams, but I doubt it. By one of those perplexing decisions that are becoming the hallmark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' documentary committee, Hoop Dreams, a documentary that won the Directors Guild of America Award and an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award and made the "10 Best Pictures of the Year" lists of many film critics, was passed by as a nominee for the documentary Oscar. Now, in the cosmic scheme of things, I doubt if this occurrence, or lack thereof, amounts to a hill of beans. But for many documentary filmmakers, it was symptomatic of some of the decisions that have emanated from the academy's documentary committee over the years. It set off a barrage of criticism that extended from daily sniping in the press to a David Letterman riff at the Academy Awards. If this were the Tuscaloosa Film Festival, I doubt if the matter would have been of great concern, but for better or worse, the Academy Award is the most publicized and important award in the documentary field. The danger is that controversial decisions like this one will debase the currency of the award. (In fact, the nominated filmmakers with whom I spoke all wished that Hoop Dreams had been one of the nominees.)

In all fairness, over the years the academy's nominated documentaries generally represent quality films. All of this year's nominees were excellent choices. But also, over the years, many acclaimed cutting-edge films have been passed over in the nomination process. The storm over Hoop Dreams was the result of a slowly building resentment on the part of many documentary makers and film critics over the decision-making process.

It was good to hear that academy President Arthur Hiller has responded to the situation by promising to select a committee to investigate the voting process. I only hope that this committee will not be made up solely of members of the documentary committee. Having in my lifetime suffered through many long debates about the merits of various films, I would be the first to agree that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. In the case of the academy, however, one can legitimately wonder who are the beholders. There's the rub. The people who vote on the nominees for the documentary award are not necessarily documentary filmmakers. The documentary is not a branch of the academy. It is not considered a special craft, as art costume design, sound recording, makeup, and acting. Therefore, by the existing rules of the academy, members of any craft can judge documentaries. Usually only one­ third of the approximately 40 members of the nominating committee have actually been associated with the art of making a documentary . And this is the crux of the problem. To put it another way, would a documentary filmmaker be the best judge of nominees for costume or set design or makeup?

Limiting the committee to members with documentary experience might go a long way toward solving the overall problem. Is it difficult to do? It shouldn't be. After all, they can amend the Constitution of the United States, so this should be in the realm of possibility. One objection often quoted by committee members is that there are too few documen­tarians in the academy available to screen all the films. By that I assume they mean that the 15 or so members available every year is too small a number to reach an intelligent verdict. However, I for one would be content to take my chances on a nomination from a small number of my peers who understand my craft. This has been the nominating process in which I have participateted for such events as the DGA Awards, the IDA Awards, the Toronto Hot Docs Awards, and so forth—five or ten people slowly reaching a consensus on the best choices. You may not agree, but I think a democratic process—in which both the informed and the semi-informed are eligible to vote—is not necessarily the best way to judge art.

Now, on to another subject. Our IDA seminars last fall proved to be quite popular. So before we hit the summer months, we have scheduled two more special events in Los Angeles. On June 10, an all-day seminar will deal with the formation and operation of a documentary production company. It will be presented by our board treasurer, Mitchell Block, president of Direct Cinema, one of the major distributors of independent documentaries. And on May 16, we have scheduled an evening with Hoop Dreams creators Steve James and Peter Gilbert, who will take us through the creative, production, financial, and distribution aspects of their acclaimed documentary. It should be quite an evening. Both events will be hosted by Eastman Kodak.