An Open Letter to the Academy

John Sinno’s open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is worth a read, so I’m posting it below. Sinno was one of the producers of James Longley‘s Iraq in Fragments, a documentary full of poetry and ambiguity — uncommon virtues for such a political film. Like the movie, the letter speaks for itself.

John Sinno
Typecast Films
3131 Western Ave Suite 514
Seattle, Washington, USA
March 2, 2007

An open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

I had the great fortune of attending the 79th Academy Awards following my nomination as producer for a film in the Best Documentary Feature category. At the Awards ceremony, most categories featured an introduction that glorified the filmmakers’ craft and the role it plays for the film audience and industry. But when comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money. He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very “real” quality, while making a comically sour face. This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films “incredibly depressing!”

While I appreciate the role of humor in our lives, Jerry Seinfeld’s remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind’s reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries “incredibly depressing,” he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they’re nothing but downers. He wasted a wonderful opportunity to excite viewers about the nominated films and about the documentary genre in general.

To have a presenter introduce a category with such disrespect for the nominees and their work is counter to the principles the Academy was founded upon. To be nominated for an Academy Award is one of the highest honors our peers can give us, and to have the films dismissed in such an offhand fashion was deeply insulting. The Academy owes all documentary filmmakers an apology.

Seinfeld’s introduction arrived on the heels of an announcement by the Academy that the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers’ work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision.

On a final note, I would like to point out that there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscar telecast, though it was on the minds of many in the theatre and of millions of viewers. It is wonderful to see the Academy support the protection of the environment. Unfortunately there is more than just one inconvenient truth in this world. Having mention of the Iraq War avoided altogether was a painful reminder for many of us that our country is living in a state of denial. As filmmakers, it is the greatest professional crime we can commit not to speak out with the truth. We owe it to the public.

I hope what I have said is taken to heart. It comes from my concern for the cinematic art and its crucial role in the times we’e living in.

John Sinno
Academy Award Nominee, Iraq In Fragments
Co-Founder, Northwest Documentary Association

5 Responses to “An Open Letter to the Academy”

  1. Alan Gratz Says:

    Best Documentary Feature wasn’t the only category to get this kind of treatment. When the Will Ferrell, Jack Black, John C. Reilly “Comedians at the Oscars” number finished, Ferrell launched immediately – and somewhat bizarrely – into the nominees for Best Makeup. There was no segue at all, and no discussion of the nominees other than their names and films. It seemed pretty clear that this year the Oscars wanted first to entertain, second to say they were “green,” and third to talk about film.

  2. Paul Says:

    I agree. I don’t have a problem with the Oscars being entertaining — I just wish that they WERE entertaining. The self-congratulatory stuff about the Oscars being “green” was typically over-the-top Hollywood self-congratulation, which is to say that what the Academy and the studios are doing is too little and it is quite late to be waking up to this stuff.

  3. Chris Cagle Says:

    I just wanna know how many carbon offsets had to be purchased to cover the arc lighting for the telecast alone.

  4. An Open Letter to the Academy at FresHDV Says:

    […] John Sinno, one of the producers of the critically-acclaimed documentary Iraq in Fragments, has written a very interesting open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the letter, Sinno takes issue with the flippant disrepect shown towards docs in general by Oscar’s presenter Jerry Seinfeld. Here’s a few short snippets: […]

  5. Self-Reliant Filmmaking » Blog Archive » New Doc Qualifying Rules: Arguments, Notes, Questions Says:

    […] I was surprised when I first read about this rule (in John Sinno’s Open Letter to the Academy). Mainly, I wondered how many docs could actually qualify for such a thing; it seemed unrealistic. AJ, though, is in support of the new rule and he makes a very convincing argument in support of the new policy. Pragmatically, he notes that several films qualified this year and, philosophically, he argues that if you weren’t hoping, weren’t planning, weren’t thinking all along that you’d have a real theatrical [run], then you shouldn’t be thinking Oscar. […]