The Documentary Oscar Goes Political

15 films have been shortlisted for the feature length documentary Academy Award. 5 of them will be nominated for the final round by January 16th. In other words – in a couple of weeks it will be decided which 5 films will compete at the Oscar ceremony the 2nd of March to be chosen as the best long documentary. Normally with the Oscars I shake my head and say ”who cares”, but contrary to this previous indifference felt about the documentary Oscar as being an internal American affair, it is this year more interesting because there actually are award-worthy films. Even if, I hurry to state, most of the 15 films listed are American. There are no East European films, no Asian, no African etc. So if this is absolutely not the world championship of documentary films, the list is interesting because it also confirms that documentaries deal with the health situation of the patient. There is a strong a focus on contemporary conflicts. And some of the films have a high artistic value.

Important newspapers like Guardian/The Observer and New York Times write long articles these days about the political documentaries on the short list with 15 titles. The recent interest is evoked by the fact that a screening in Moscow of ”Pussy Riot. A Punk Prayer” has been cancelled, that ”The Square” (= Tahrir) by Jehane Noujaim has not got its official permission to be screened theatrically in Egypt, and that the Indonesian people have difficulties to get to watch “The Act of Killing”. On the list is also “God Loves Uganda” about the rise of homophobia in the African country, very much “helped” by the work of American missionaries.

It is good that the documentary genre is boosted like this, and it is good that the alteration in the voting system will make more than special committees watch and judge the documentaries. Michael Moore, one of the people behind the new system: “It’s clear to me, and lot of people in the academy, that going to a full democracy system where everyone votes has been the key to the vast improvements, we’ve seen,” Moore said recently.

The newspapers mentioned above circles around “The Square”, “The Act of

Killing” and “Blackfish” as favourites to win – I have seen “The Act of Killing” and not the two others. My hope is that three films will make it to the nomination for their originality in storytelling and unique interpretation of human existence: “First Cousin Once Removed,” by Alan Berliner, “The Act of Killing,” by Joshua Oppenheimer and “Stories We Tell,” by Sarah Polley. They have all more than a current political or mainstream family focus. They are extra-ordinary.

I watched “Pussy Riot. Punk Prayer” the other day, it is a well made but also very predictable – yes, ordinary – tv documentary, whereas the Russian “Pussy Riot versus Putin”, made by the anonymous Russian group Gogol’s Wives, obviously part of the opposition movement in the country, brings forward a much closer and powerful look at what Pussy Riot had made and stands for with energetic sequences from the very start. The film won first prize at idfa festival in Amsterdam in medium length category. It is not on the short list, of course not, it could not live up to the rules of the Academy – and the economy connected to promotion in the US.

One more candidate, but not in the documentary category, is Rithy Panh’s Missing Picture” (PHOTO) that is on the fiction list of foreign-language films. The Cambodian/French director has made an outstanding hybrid documentary that he described like this when it premiered at the festival in Cannes:

“For many years, I have been looking for the missing picture: a photograph taken between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge when they ruled over Cambodia…On its own, of course, an image cannot prove mass murder, but it gives us cause for thought, prompts us to meditate, to record History. I searched for it vainly in the archives, in old papers, in the country villages of Cambodia. Today I know: this image must be missing. I was not really looking for it; would it not be obscene and insignificant? So I created it. What I give you today is neither the picture nor the search for a unique image, but the picture of a quest: the quest that cinema allows.” 

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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