Two nights a week, four hours each night, from November through early February, a group of volunteers assembles to look at documentary films in Los Angeles. On an average night, there will be 30 or 35 of them. This year, they spent some 96 hours looking at 64 films. Their average age is "retired."
This is the documentary nominating committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They consider themselves to be doing a good deed for the academy. The men and women who make documentary films in America generally despise them.
The academy's volunteers are filled with good will, yes, but people in the field feel they are hopelessly out of touch with what a good documentary is, and does. In recent years, the films they have NOT nominated constitute an honor roll of the best documentaries: "The Thin Blue Line," "At the Max," "Roger & Me," "28 Up," "Brother's Keeper" and now, in 1995, "Hoop Dreams," the most successful and critically acclaimed documentary in American history.
The "Hoop Dreams" exclusion "is scandalous. It's devastating. I'm close to tears," said Barbara Kopple, who has won Oscars for two documentaries of her own.
"It was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre," a rueful Steve James, who directed "Hoop Dreams," told me. "We just joined a pretty prestigious club. There seems to be a history of not nominating the year's best documentaries. At least we were named in the editing category -- which is a vote of our peers."
Why wasn't it nominated?
"The committee found five better pictures, is the glib explanation," says Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy.
"The votes went in to Price, Waterhouse and they were counted," Walter Shenson, chairman of the documentary committee, told me. "That's democracy. I personally gave it as high a mark as I could."
"Words fail me," says a disappointed member of the committee, off the record. "I'm going to have to gather myself back together before I can even reply."
"They're old-fashioned and they go for documentaries made up of talking heads and stock footage," says Kopple, whose own Oscar winners, "Harlan Country USA" and "American Dream," were shot on location during bitter labor disputes. "I've lost all respect for the academy for not including this film."
In years past, some directors have accused the nominating committee of not even looking at their films. Director Michael Moore claimed "Roger & Me" was shut off after 45 minutes, and Martin Scorsese heard that his rock documentary "The Last Waltz" was switched off after 10 minutes because it was "too loud."
"Hoop Dreams" is 165 minutes long. "I know for a fact that the committee viewed the whole film," says the academy's Davis.
Davis said he was aware of annual protests against the caliber of the documentary nominations, and said the academy is prepared to examine the subject.
"The problem is the sheer mass of films," he said. "If you're working, as most academy members are, you're not going to have three months to devote this kind of time. Even retired people find it pretty grueling. We have to find a way to eliminate the documentaries that are basically TV productions. If we get down to a more manageable number of 35 films, more will participate in the process."
COPYRIGHT 1995 THE EBERT CO. LTD., all rights reserved, cannot be reprinted without permission; Roger Ebert's reviews are available on CompuServe. Back to Hoop Dreams