Blinded by the Light
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Angered by the omission of "Roger & Me" from the list of nominees for this year's Academy Awards, leading documentary filmmakers are circulating a letter of protest to the Motion Picture Academy, calling for revision of the selection process, and a write-in vote for the film. At the same time, a controversy is developing over the role of one of the members of the Academy's documentary selection committee - whose own company holds the distribution rights to three of this year's five nominees.
"Roger & Me," a satirical documentary by Michael Moore about the impact of General Motors plant closings on GM's hometown of Flint, Mich., is the most visible and successful documentary film in many years. But it was not on the list when the Oscar nominations for best documentary were announced on Feb. 14.
Unlike most other Oscar categories, where the nominations are made by peer groups, the documentaries are chosen by a panel appointed by the Academy. Many leading U.S. documentary filmmakers feel the panel does not reflect the state of the documentary art, and they cite last year's omission of Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" - a film that was instrumental in freeing a man from death row - as additional evidence that the selection process needs re-evaluation.
In particular, they call into question the role of Mitchell W. Block, an influential member of the selection panel, who is president of Direct Cinema, a Los Angeles-based distributor of documentary films. Three of Direct Cinema's films - "Adam Clayton Powell," "Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren" and "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt" - are among this year's documentary nominees, along with "For All Mankind" and "Crack USA: County Under Siege."
"There's a feeling in the field that films that want Academy Awards would be well-advised to go to Block," said San Francisco filmmaker Larry Daressa, chairman of the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. "It was a farce that `Roger & Me' was not nominated."
"Block seems to get an awful lot of his films nominated," said Judy Irving, director of the anti-nuclear film "Dark Circle," which caused a stir when it was shown on PBS last year. "When Block wanted to distribute `Dark Circle,' he told me he could help us on a nomination because he was on the committee. He is definitely the power behind the committee - the only one who is currently active in any phase of documentaries at all."
"If you're a documentary filmmaker and want to get a nomination, you should try to get Mitch to distribute your film," said Pam Yates, executive producer of "Witness to War," the 1985 Oscar winner in the documentary short category. "This is something documentary filmmakers have known for a long time. It's a clear conflict of interest, which we have repeatedly tried to get the Academy to recognize."
Block has been on the selection committee for 11 years. Feature-length documentaries distributed by Direct Cinema have been nominated 12 times since 1981, representing about 25 percent of all nominations. They have won 30 percent of the Oscars, in 1983 ("He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' "), 1985 ("Broken Rainbow") and 1987 ("The 10-Year Lunch").
Interviewed on Feb. 16, Block said he has no comment on the filmmakers' charges, "because Academy protocol prohibits members from commenting on individual titles that were under consideration." He said he has never suggested to filmmakers that he had any influence on the selection process, and that when the Academy committee votes on films that he distributes, he abstains.
Awards such as the Oscars are crucial to the financial success of documentary films, Yates said. "In the documentary and education market, the No. 1 thing people rent by are awards. With feature films, critics and word-of-mouth can make a difference. In our field, it's the prizes."
In Los Angeles, Bruce Davis, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy, said he assumes "Roger & Me" was not nominated because "they found five pictures the committee thought were better." Informed that three of the nominees were Direct Cinema releases, he said, "Well, I'll be darned. I thought it was only two. That is very interesting."
The protest letter to the Academy, scheduled to be sent on Wednesday, was circulated by Yates and signed by such well-known documentarians as Haskell Wexler, Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay!"), Robert Richardson, Julia Reichert and Chris Choy, states the filmmakers are "shocked and outraged" by the Academy's snub to "Roger & Me," and describes the film as "this year's most visible, biting documentary, one that's already proved itself the people's choice."
The letter calls for a change in the structure of the committee, "so the nominations will clearly reflect the year's best films," but Yates and Irving both said they wanted the Academy to alter its rules to allow documentary filmmakers to nominate documentaries, just as actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and so on.
According to Yates, "Membership on the selection committee itself is a grueling process that involves looking at films for three hours every Wednesday night for several months. Most of the members are older people with very conservative ideas about what a documentary is."
Daressa agreed: "The Academy feels uncomfortable with point-of-view work. It believes it is possible for documentaries to be objective and balanced, by which they mean their own consensus view. Any point of view to the left or right of that is somehow biased. The fact is that most documentaries do have a point of view, and always have."
Many documentarians feel, he said, that Michael Moore's highly visible and opinionated presence in "Roger & Me" made the Academy committee uneasy. "But by his very choice of himself as the narrator," he said, "Michael made it perfectly obvious he was not an impartial reporter. His film is exemplary in that it did not pretend to be an objective report."
This year's "Roger & Me" controversy is a replay of last year's flap over the non-nomination of "The Thin Blue Line," which restaged certain scenes in a long-ago murder case, playing them back from various points of view to reflect differing versions of testimony at the trial. That technique bothered the selectors, Daressa said. "The committee has established itself as an Academy in the 19th century French sense of the term, enforcing an approved, official style."
Errol Morris, director of "The Thin Blue Line," agrees. In London to film his next project, "A Brief History of Time," Morris said Tuesday, "I was even more surprised this year that `Roger & Me' was not nominated than I was last year about my own film. I thought maybe my film wasn't nominated because it broke certain rules of cinema-verite documentary, with its use of re-enactments. Regardless of its content, `Roger & Me' in form resembles more closely a traditional documentary."
In the case of "The Thin Blue Line," investigative articles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere suggested that the committee members did not even view the entire film. "What supposedly makes the documentary committee ethical," said Irving, "is that they can prove they've seen all the films. But in common practice, if they don't like a film, they can raise their hands after 10 or 15 minutes, and when enough hands are raised, the film is turned off."
In support of her suggestion that the documentary nominations be voted on by documentary filmmakers, Irving said the U.S. documentary film world is relatively small, and filmmakers attend many festivals and screenings of each other's work. "We all know most of the work that's out there every year."
The prospect that "Roger & Me" might win on a write-in vote were considerably dimmed when the Academy's Davis said that Oscar write-ins are no longer legal. "That used to be something you could do," he said, "but these days, Price Waterhouse doesn't record the votes for anybody not on the ballot."
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