And the Nominees Aren't . . . : Documentaries That Oscar Forgot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And, in the documentary feature category, the Academy Award nominees don't include:

"Paris Is Burning," an exploration of a subculture of New York's poor black and Latino gays, some of whom are transvestites and transsexuals, directed by Jennie Livingston. The film shared both the 1990 Los Angeles Film Critics award for best documentary and 1991's grand jury prize in that category at the Sundance Festival;

"35 Up," the critically acclaimed fifth installment in Michael Apted's chronicle of the lives of 14 British children which began in 1963, when they turned 7. The last chapter, "28 Up", received several awards including the International Emmy and the International Documentary Award;

"Hearts of Darkness," a study of the making of the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now," which critic Gene Siskel called the year's best film and which was named 1991's best documentary by the National Board of Review.

"A Brief History of Time," directed by Errol Morris and based on the autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, completed in December, which shared the grand jury prize in the documentary category at the 1992 Sundance Festival. Morris also directed 1989's "The Thin Blue Line," the story of convicted murderer Randall Adams, which was hailed by critics and also ignored by the Academy;

Also missing: "Truth or Dare," the cinema verite documentary of Madonna's 1990 "Blonde Ambition" tour and Ken Burns' ("The Civil War") "Empire of the Air."

Why did none of the films on this list--some of the year's most popular and acclaimed documentaries--turn up among the Academy's five contenders for best documentary feature this week?

The academy insists it's just the luck of the draw, but some of the films' producers and directors believe that the academy's documentary screening committee--which consists of approximately 60 members of the documentary film community--is exhibiting a strong bias against documentaries with critical and popular appeal.

Critic Siskel was so displeased with the snubbing of "Hearts of Darkness" that he said he plans to "rip" the academy's documentary committee on two upcoming installments of "Siskel & Ebert.

"I was very disappointed, and now I'm getting angry, because it's clear that the documentary committee has a grudge against documentaries that have achieved commercial success," Siskel said. "The only explanation can be that either they resent the success of such films as 'Paris Is Burning' and 'Hearts of Darkness,' or they have a not-so-secret agenda of trying to stimulate business for documentary films that have not already reached an audience."

An angry Apted agreed. "It seems pretty much in the tradition of the academy to ignore any film that has achieved any mainstream success," said Apted Wednesday shortly after the nominations were announced. Apted said he plans to organize as many documentary filmmakers as possible to write an open letter to the academy demanding that committee's procedures be examined.

"I didn't want this to sound like sour grapes, but when I realized who else was not nominated, it frankly seemed ridiculous," Apted continued. "It must be a general agenda, or else this committee is so out of touch with what is contemporary. It (the committee) does seem to be stuck somewhere. Where it is stuck is not my place to say."

Sy Gomberg, co-chairman of the academy's documentary committee, insists that the process is fair. Bias against popular documentaries? "No--gosh, no," Gomberg said.

Gomberg said that members of the group viewed some 59 documentaries this year and voted separately on each film, giving each a ranking of 10 (highest) down to 6. He added there is no group vote on any film.

Gomberg said the only bias he could ascertain was that some members tended to give low scores to films that had been broadcast on TV ("35-Up" was shown on television in Britain, Burns' "Empire of the Air" aired on PBS and "Hearts of Darkness" was broadcast on the Showtime cable channel).

"I've never heard anyone on the committee say: 'Let's forget this one because it has been seen by a lot of people,"' Gomberg said. "The committee agonizes about how we are going to pick five out of so many good ones . . . (this year) there were 15 or 20 I would consider superior films . . . and we don't know who came in sixth, or eighth, or ninth."

The nominees in this year's documentary feature category are "Death on the Job," "Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House," "In the Shadow of the Stars," "The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-45" and "Wild By Law."

The same complaint of bias among the documentary committee has surfaced before: In 1989, critics were in an uproar over the exclusion of Morris' "The Thin Blue Line;" in 1990, the controversy raged over Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," which took a darkly humorous look at the impact of GM layoffs in Flint, Mich.

Morris reacted calmly to being ignored by the academy again. "I believe that the academy has the right to nominate whoever they want," he said. "I don't believe that my films have, sort of, any absolute right to be nominated.

"Was I disappointed in the case of 'The Thin Blue Line'? Yes, I was. Was I disappointed in the case of 'Brief History of Time'? Yes, I was. Would I like my films to be nominated? Yes, I would."

Livingston was more blunt about her firm belief that the academy is biased. "I don't think people should be penalized for the success of their films," she said.

"If anything, I think there is sort of a tonal bias toward documentaries that are earnest in character," she continued. "Films like 'Truth or Dare,' or 'Roger & Me,' have a tone of irony, they play with the medium a little bit.

"It's ironic, because of course the academy awards the mainstream when it comes to the best-film category, and in this one category, the opposite holds true. Clearly the procedure, whatever it is, needs to be examined."

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