Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

New Doc Qualifying Rules: Arguments, Notes, Questions

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Over at All These Wonderful Things, AJ Schnack writes in depth on a subject that has long been a source of contention and debate in the documentary community: The Academy’s rules for qualifying for the Oscars.

Probably the biggest change is “Rule IV.2“:

In addition to the Seven-Day Qualifying Exhibition, feature documentaries must complete a Multi-State Theatrical Rollout consisting of fourteen other exhibitions, as defined in Paragraph III.2, of at least three consecutive days each, at least twice daily, in any standard commercial format. These exhibitions must be distributed among ten or more states in the U.S. and must be completed by Thursday, November 15, 2007.

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.

I found myself surprised to agree with him. My only lingering question on the issue is whether these rules are actually more restrictive than those applied to narrative features. To the best of my understanding — and I could certainly be wrong on this — a film like Letters from Iwo Jima really only needs a one-week qualifying run in New York or L.A. to be considered for the Oscars. If this is the case, why hold docs to a different standard? It seems like the best way to maintain integrity in the process is to have narratives and docs follow the same rules.

Aside from this minor point, I only found myself disagreeing with AJ one one other issue — his support for the 35mm print requirement, which remains for docs short-listed for the Oscar. AJ writes:

Some filmmakers have complained that if your film is shortlisted, you must produce a 35mm film print, a costly process that is starting to seem unnecessary in the midst of the digital revolution. I find this complaint a bit hard to swallow, considering that just 6 years ago you couldn’t play a film festival without a print, but Apted says that it’s something the Documentary Branch is looking at, and that it’s conceivable that in the near future you wouldn’t have to have a print if you made the semifinals.

Actually, I think the 35mm print rule is a legitimate complaint.

While it’s true that six years ago you couldn’t play a festival without a print, it’s also true that six years ago the theatrical experience was defined by 35mm film prints. Today, projection on 35mm is still the standard, but it no longer defines the theatrical experience. Digital projection in commercial cinemas has become increasingly commonplace. We are in an era where some viewers can go see a digitally shot, digitally projected “theatrical film” like Zodiac, as I did.

Furthermore, most documentaries these days — including all five nominated last year — were shot on some form of video. A 35mm blow up may be an “up-rez”, but it is, in all likelihood, a decrease in visual quality of the camera original footage. In all likelihood, the best looking version is the film’s videotape color-corrected edit master tape, which is probably on HDCAM SR. Heck, it might be on DVCam.

My point is this: If a film can qualify for the Oscar without ever making a print (by the new rules, it can), and if a 35mm print is a downgrade in quality (as any 35mm blow up is) then why create some flaming hoop for cash-strapped filmmakers and/or distributors to jump through? This would be a minor point, of course, if such prints didn’t cost $20,000 or more. That’s chump change for a studio; for the smaller outfits that distribute documentaries I would imagine that’s a hefty price for what sounds like a few screenings for the Documentary Committee to decide whether or not you’ll be nominated.

The supreme irony of all of this angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debating is that if a movie ends up being nominated, most people will judge the film on DVD screeners at home. This is true of both fiction and documentary features but, either way, what’s “theatrical” about that?

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Healthy (and ultimately minor) disagrements aside AJ’s whole article is great food for thought, at least if you’re a documentarian (or advocate of them) or if you follow the Oscars in that Inside Baseball sort of way.

SXSW: Big Rig

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Doug Pray’s Big Rig follows several (maybe 10 or 12) truck drivers back and forth across the America. The film resists giving the audience a single overarching narrative thread and instead chooses to show most of his subjects in discrete vignettes. The approach has mixed success.

The downside is simple, but important: Some of the truckers are more interesting subjects than others, so my interest in the movie waxed and waned with each featured trucker. Happily, the last two individuals (an outspoken Native American and a Polish emigree) were among the most interesting so, in the end, the picture did send me out on a high note.

The positive angle to Pray’s strategy is that, by meeting so many truckers in the film, the film encourages us to make some generalizations about what might be termed “trucker values.”

Those values amount to a mess of contradictions. Many of the truckers are simultaneously patriotic and anti-government; outspoken and, yet, against voting; and they hold traditional “family values”, yet they’re rarely at home. (Whether being on the road alone is the source or the result of these values is, sadly, left unexplored.)

Let me quickly add that I’m not condemning these contradictions. Quite the contrary: To me, one of Big Rig‘s strengths is that Pray exposes one subculture’s contradictions in a way that is non-judgmental, even warm.

Big Rig has other things going for it (like Pray’s gorgeous digital cinematography, which was shot on a Varicam), and against it (it had a couple too many landscape montages), but it has ultimately stayed with me because it features articulate, conservative, blue-collar Americans as its heroes. In this era of the “liberal documentary”, it’s worth remembering that if cinema is going to play a role in social change, first it must help bridge the divide that “red state vs. blue state” simplifications have created. This kind of respectful, human documentary investigation helps build that bridge.

An Open Letter to the Academy

Monday, March 5th, 2007

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

Lost in Light Launches

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Jennifer Proctor and Aaron Valdez’s Lost in Light project website has officially launched. If you missed my post about it in October, the project is “devoted to preserving, archiving, and making available 8mm and Super 8 films that are otherwise being lost to time.”

Now that the project has begun, Jennifer and Aaron are ready to start accepting Super 8 and 8mm films for free transfer to video and inclusion on their videoblog. They are also accepting creative works made in Super 8 and 8mm for posting to the site.

Click here to find out more about having your Super-8 and “regular” 8mm movies transferred to video for free. The transfers they’re offering are flickerless, and they look good. Check out their first post to see a sample.

If you’re interested in submitting creative work, click here.

James Longley: SRF Interview

Monday, December 4th, 2006

‘You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,’ he told the president. ‘You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.’ Privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

— from Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward

While the title of James Longley’s mesmerizing new documentary, Iraq in Fragments, literally conjures images of the now-infamous “Pottery Barn rule”, the connection runs much deeper than the title. Like Colin Powell’s admonition to the president, James Longley’s film actually considers the situation of the Iraqis. I say “actually” because, though it may seem like an obvious consideration, Iraq in Fragments is, to the best of my knowledge, the only American documentary about Iraq — and this year has seen several of those — that focuses solely on the citizens of that fractured nation

Divided into three discrete segments (hence the title’s double-meaning), Iraq in Fragments first follows a fatherless 11 year old working in a Baghdad garage. The second section chronicles the growth of the militant followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The film closes with a portrait of a family of Kurdish farmers. It’s an illuminating approach, one that prevents it or us from making generalizations about how Iraq’s citizens, have, and haven’t, been transformed by the war. I imagine it will also help American audiences understand, at least a little, how American forces are viewed — as occupiers by some, as liberators by others. Certainly, the time Longley spent with his subjects (well over a year, and 300+ hours shot) helps provide a perspective that’s been absent from what we see on the nightly news.

While Iraq in Fragments would be noteworthy for its content, the film also happens to feature striking cinema verite cinematography and edgy editing, which gives the film a quality that is more poetry than prose. The style creates an impressionistic sketch of what it might feel like to be in Iraq, without (in my opinion) grossly aestheticizing the pain, rage, and hope he finds there.

The combination of style and substance has been met with critical praise. At Sundance, where it premiered, Longley took home honors for directing, editing, and cinematography — a first for a single film. Since then its laurels include Best Documentary awards at major film festivals (Full Frame, Thessaloniki, and Chicago, among others), as well as a Gotham Award.

That Longley did most of the work (e.g., cinematography, editing, music, etc) single-handedly will make the film’s achievement that much more impressive for some. Longley, though, suggests that working this way was precisely how he was able to achieve things.

We emailed back and forth last week, soon after Iraq in Fragments was short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.

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