I finally saw the Oscar-nominated documentary Which Way Home over the weekend. And maybe some of you did, too, if you live in New York or LA and had the chance to check out AMC's Best Documentary Feature showcase on Sunday. If not, don't fret, the DVD of the film, which follows Central American children as they travel -- with hopes of immigrating -- to the U.S., will be available for purchase this Monday (March 8), and apparently HBO is re-airing it intermittently.
Anyway, due to the way it's shot, Which Way Home is not really the sort of doc you need to watch on the big screen. Even on my TV it looked quite pixilated, and since HBO was involved in its development, it's possible there was always the idea in mind of shooting for cable presentation (which could be used to argue against its Oscar-worthiness, but that's a topic for another time).
This isn't to criticize its low-budget video look, especially since the lightweight cameras used for the film clearly allowed for better access and coverage of the migrant children's stories. Seeing the Mexican landscapes shown in the film through 35mm or even HD might have been nice, but the filmmakers certainly couldn't have hopped atop freight trains with lots of bulky equipment. Nor would they have gotten the night scenes that appear in the film.
I do recommend it and agree with Erik Davis' review from the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival that it's an entertaining and educational film that makes for an excellent double feature with the recent Mexican drama Sin Nombre. I'm also happy that unlike some documentarians, director Rebecca Cammisa doesn't approach the subject as a potential savior for these children (as far as I know, she's not trying to get them all adopted, let alone accepted to NYU).
But I wonder if my endorsement matters, since the Academy has already hopefully put the film on your radar. I know I probably wouldn't have seen it, at least not right away, had it not received an Oscar nomination. But somehow once the Academy Awards prestige is attached, any documentary becomes a must-see for me. It goes back to when I was just getting into non-fiction film and I used Oscar history for a starting point.
Some films I might not have seen as early as I did had they not been nominated (or winners) include The War Room, Harlan County U.S.A., and The Times of Harvey Milk. However, in the past decade documentary films have received a lot more attention and distribution, and it's more likely now that I'll have seen most major documentary titles before they're even shortlisted for the Academy Award.
There are tons and tons of non-fiction films out there, though. So while I will see The Cove because of all the love it got at Sundance and since (particularly from our own immediately "wowed" Scott Weinberg, from whom I heard about the film first) and I'll see something like Food, Inc. regardless of any (undeserving) praise due to my interest in food and the writing of Eric Schlossberg and Michael Pollan, something like Which Way Home would have likely gone unnoticed.
How many others will rent (when available) or tune in to the film solely due to the Oscar nod? Who else has rented a documentary because the VHS or DVD box highlighted its recognition by the Academy? How many more non-fiction films might you see if even more films were officially recognized than just the five final nominees?
This is why I will always be disappointed in the Academy's rule that a documentary may not advertise itself as having been shortlisted for the Oscar. I'll be honest. As someone who dislikes the musical A Chorus Line, I wouldn't have bothered with the recent doc Every Little Step except for the fact that it was one of the 15 films shortlisted by the Documentary Branch Screening Committee last fall. Other films, like Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes, would probably benefit from being able to acknowledge in ads and DVD boxes that they were finalists for the Oscar category.
That specific film at least has a ton of critical praise attached to it, but how many casual documentary viewers pay attention to reviews when determining whether or not to rent a title? With most critics giving positive reviews to pretty much any documentary they come across, readers may have a hard time going by such acclaim.
Certainly there are other ways for people to be turned onto a documentary without Academy or critical recommendation. I don't think Anvil! The Story of Anvil is such a big hit because of reviews. The niche appeal of that film to heavy metal fans, though, is relative to my interest in Food, Inc. because of its subject matter. Who became a fan after merely hearing about it from Sundance buzz? Who saw it because of VH1's support? Who hasn't seen it yet because it's apparently not good enough for an Oscar nomination?
Are there any other honors out there that matter? Well, outside of my initial use of the Oscars as a guide for an introduction to non-fiction film, I've also rented or gone to see films because they won an award at either Sundance or one of the many film festivals catering specifically to documentary, such as Hot Docs and SILVERDOCS. Not all of these events hand out trophies for specific films (awards can take away from both the mere celebration of the medium and a fest's selected titles as a whole). For example the True/False Film Festival, which was held last week, instead awards a single filmmaker "whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking." But it's still a good recommender. I'm more inclined to check out the body of work of Laura Poitras (who has also previously been nominated for an Oscar for My Country, My Country) now that she's won True/False's 2010 True Vision Award.
I fortunately do also live in New York City, which not only gets AMC's Oscar showcase of documentaries but has a few cinemas that are hugely supportive of non-fiction film. The fairly new not-for-profit Maysles Cinema even exclusively shows documentaries (for other great doc venues, see Time Out NY's report). But if you're a doc fan who lives far away from a major city, you might at least pay attention to these theaters' schedules for films to either save to your rental queue or tell your local arthouse or college film club to book for a screening. Let everyone know the Oscars aren't the only gauge of what's great in documentary.
Where do you get your documentary recommendations from?