Best Documentary Oscar semi-finalists: ‘Miserable failure’?
Co-directed by Jafar Panahi, currently serving a six-year jail sentence for “propaganda” against the theocratic Iranian government, and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This Is Not a Film is one of 15 semi-finalists for the 2013 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ press release, 126 documentaries had initially qualified in that category.
A day in the life of Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film was shot while the filmmaker, appealing his jail sentence, was under house arrest. Saved onto a USB drive, the film was placed inside a cake and smuggled out of Iran.
Iranian movie at the Oscars?
Ironically, thanks to This Is Not a Film an Iranian movie may end up in the Oscar 2013 race after all. Adding insult to irony, one not chosen by the Iranian authorities.
That should serve as a lesson not only to Iranian theocrats but also to the Academy: Countries don’t make movies; filmmakers do.
‘The House I Live In’ & ‘5 Broken Cameras’
Among the other Best Documentary Feature Oscar 2013 semi-finalists are the following:
- Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, about the consequences of the United States’ failed, destructive, and undemocratic War on Drugs – which the Obama Administration and its Justice Department have decided to perpetuate, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. (As an aside, Mervyn LeRoy’s 1945 Honorary Academy Award-winning short The House I Live In features Frank Sinatra as himself, teaching children about the glory of religious tolerance. Future Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz penned the screenplay.)
- Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras, which documents “a Palestinian farmer’s chronicle of his nonviolent resistance to the actions of the Israeli army.”
- David France’s Gotham Award and New York Film Critics Circle winner How to Survive a Plague, about how AIDS activists helped to change the course of the pandemic.
- Lee Hirsch’s Bully, a much-ballyhooed Weinstein Company release about peer-to-peer bullying in American schools. (Last year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, was a Weinstein Company release as well.)
- Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, which shows how climate change is affecting the planet’s fast-disappearing glaciers.
- Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, about cases of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Church officials and the internal cover-up that followed.
2013 Best Documentary Feature Oscar semi-finalists
The 15 contenders for a nomination in the 2013 Oscars’ Best Documentary Feature category are listed below in alphabetical order:
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Never Sorry.
- Bully, The Bully Project.
- Chasing Ice, Exposure.
- Detropia, Loki Films.
- Ethel, Moxie Firecracker Films.
- 5 Broken Cameras, Guy DVD Films.
- The Gatekeepers, Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil.
- The House I Live In, Charlotte Street Films.
- How to Survive a Plague, How to Survive a Plague.
- The Imposter, Imposter Pictures Ltd.
- The Invisible War, Chain Camera Pictures.
- Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Jigsaw Productions in association with Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films.
- Searching for Sugar Man, Red Box Films.
- This Is Not a Film, Wide Management.
- The Waiting Room, Open’hood, Inc.
Have Michael Moore’s Documentary Branch rule changes been effective?
At the beginning of the year, Academy Governor Michael Moore announced several changes in the voting rules in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Eligible movies must now be screened at least one week in either New York City or Los Angeles, and must have earned a published review in either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. Instead of separate voting committees for individual batches of eligible films, every Documentary Branch member can now nominate any eligible entry.
These changes were supposed to prevent made-for-television documentaries from entering the race while increasing the quality of potential Oscar 2013 contenders – according to this logic, if a documentary was screened commercially in either of the U.S.’s top two urban markets, it must have been better than those that didn’t find distribution. By the same token, the rules were to have made it easier for the more popular documentaries to make the cut.
So, is that how it all worked out?
Of course, out of this year’s 126 eligible films there was room for only 15 on the list of Best Documentary Feature Oscar semi-finalists. Missing from the roster were the following high-profile releases:
- Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon’s New York Film Critics Circle Best Documentary winner The Central Park Five.
- DGA Award nominee Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a runner-up in the Best Documentary category at, among others, the Boston, Chicago, Houston, and San Diego film critics awards.
- Ron Fricke’s Samsara, which became Oscilloscope Laboratories’ biggest commercial hit ever.
- David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the year’s Best Documentary according to the Denver and Detroit film critics.
- Kevin Macdonald’s British Independent Film Award nominee Marley.
- Amy J. Berg’s Peter Jackson (co-)produced West of Memphis, a nominee for the Writers Guild Awards.
- Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Frédéric Tcheng’s Chicago International Film Festival Best Documentary winner Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.
Also nowhere to be found on the list was the year’s most successful documentary at the U.S. box office, John Sullivan and Dinesh D’Souza’s widely derided 2016 Obama’s America.
Weeks before the list of Oscar 2013 semi-finalists was announced, Michael Moore himself referred to his plan (or at least part of it) as a “miserable failure.” One doesn’t have to be a soothsayer to predict more Documentary Branch rule changes in the near future.
According to the Academy’s press release, the members of the Documentary Branch “viewed the eligible documentaries for the preliminary round of voting.” Now, how many members actually watched all eligible 126 documentaries – or even just half of them – will remain a mystery for all eternity.
Documentary Branch members will next choose five nominees out of the 15 titles on the shortlist. After that, the entire Academy membership will be allowed to select the winner.
Jafar Panahi gets six years in prison
 Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison, in addition to a two-decade ban on making movies, writing screenplays, or giving interviews. He has also been forbidden from leaving the country, except in case of a medical emergency or if he decides to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage.
Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, for his part, had also gotten in trouble with the law in fall 2011, when he and five other filmmakers were arrested after taking part in a BBC documentary about Ali Khamenei, known as the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Jafar Panahi This Is Not a Film image: Wide Management.
Jacqueline Siegel The Queen of Versailles image: Magnolia Pictures.
“Best Documentary Oscar: Michael Moore Changes ‘Miserable Failure’? + ‘Subversive’ Iranian Filmmaker In” last updated in July 2018.