Academy Award Nominees for Documentary

By Pat Mullen

History is made at this year’s Academy Award nominations! The line between film and television is broken.

The Oscars nominated the 7.5 hour miniseries OJ: Made in America in the feature documentary category despite the fact that it was produced for television. A week-long theatrical run in Los Angeles prior to its airing on ESPN ensured its eligibility. It might be the film to beat come Oscar night.

This nomination for OJ is both good news and bad news on the Oscar front. Starting with the positive side, the nomination means that the gatekeepers in documentary don’t see much of a distinction when it comes to form and exhibition. They nominated previous Netflix flicks like What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Square, and nominated the streaming site again this year with Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Good art is good art, and the mode of delivery to audiences doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, the nomination for OJ shows the effects of campaigning in full swing and might likely steal the Oscar from a legitimate feature documentary.
There’s no question that Made in America is a fearless deconstruction of race in America, but so are DuVernay’s 13th and Raoul Peck’s nominee I am Not Your Negro — and they dissect America’s deeply rooted history of racism in under two hours. One can simply tell a story in broader scope in the running time afforded to episodic television. An orange is not an apple, no matter how well the spin doctors sell it. The nomination for OJ means that popular docs lie Weiner, Gleason, and Zero Days missed out, but perhaps their omissions are due to election fatigue, being too sentimental, and leaning more towards journalism than art, respectively.

However, the race between these three nominees and fellow contenders Fire at Sea and Life, Animated is significant: one year after #OscarsSoWhite, the feature documentary category boasts four black directors — OJ’s Ezra Edelman, Negro’s Peck, 13th’s DuVernay, and Life, Animated’s Roger Ross Williams. The fifth nominee, Fire at Sea by Italian master Gianfranco Rosi, is a haunting essay on the global migration crisis. This pack is one of the strongest and most impressive bunches of documentaries in years.

On the shorts side, there is the disappointing absence of Canadian contender Frame 394, which made the shortlist but not the final five. At this point, the favourite looks to be The White Helmets by Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel.

The only other lone nominee for documentary is a surprise Best Song nomination for Sting and J. Ralph in the Original Song category for Jim: The James Foley Story. Other docs like Gleason and Miss Sharon Jones! were among the favourites to represent docs in the music branch but missed out. Ditto the extra nominations for OJ: Made in America that some pundits expected to see in the Best Film Editing and Best Picture categories. No doc has yet to crack the Best Picture line-up.

This year’s documentary Oscar nominees are:

Best Documentary Feature:
Fire at Sea – Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo
I Am Not Your Negro – Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck
Life, Animated – Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman
OJ: Made in America – Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow
13th – Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish

Best Documentary (Short Subject):
Extremis – Dan Krauss
4.1 Miles – Daphne Matziaraki | Watch it here!
Joe’s Violin – Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen | Watch it here! or below
Watani: My Homeland – Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis
The White Helmets – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Watch this video on The Scene.

Best Original Song:
‘The Empty Chair’ by Sting and J. Ralph – Jim: The James Foley Story

The winners will be announced Sunday, February 26.