Impartial or impassioned?

Urgency of docs' concerns can make 'jury duty' tougher

Faced with a richly varied set of choices and a medium that’s evolving along with technology and the times, how do juries choose documentary winners?

How would you compare “‘Capturing the Friedmans,” for example, with “Winged Migration”?

Especially in a year that produced political docs aplenty (this year’s IDA nominees include “The Control Room,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Corporation”), does content rule or do craft and technique trump a compelling subject? Most jurors agree that an award-winning doc should be exceptional in both areas.

“I’m looking for a combination of good storytelling and good craft,” says Ellen Schneider, a former Sundance juror and exec director of Active Voice. Margarita de la Vega, a docu juror and exec at Flaherty Intl. Film, sums it up as “the unity between style and content.”

The real challenge lies in judging a group of films that have been pre-selected to meet that standard. Lynne Littman, a committee chair for the IDA, describes the great difficulty of choosing, for example, between “La Vie comme elle va” (As Life Goes By) a leisurely look at life in a small French town, and “Born Into Brothels,” about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district. Both are among the 14 feature nominees for this year’s IDA award.

“One is about horrendous injustice and the other about a rewarding way of living,” says Littman. “The urgency of injustice, versus the inspiration about a way to be in the world, is a murderous choice.”

Sandra Ruch, exec director of the IDA, references the micro-budget “Tarnation” in pointing out that the scale on which a film is mounted need not be a consideration. Home-edited, and pieced together from personal videos and snapshots, Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical tale of growing up with a schizophrenic mother has taken the fest world by storm, and is doing well in theatrical release.

Timely subject matter also does not guarantee a compelling film, says Nancy Buirski, director of the Full Frame Doc Fest, a premiere doc event that takes place each April in Durham, N.C.

“I’ve seen just as many bad political docs as good ones,” says Buirski. But she acknowledges that timing can help.

“Several years ago ‘To Be and to Have’ won our grand jury prize. In contrast, this year’s winner was ‘The Control Room.’ The jury may have been a little bit affected by what’s going on in the world.”

Most jurors say they make best efforts to leave bias at the door, but judging is seldom without a point of view. “I assume jurors are chosen because they come from a range of expertise,” says Schneider.

Doc editor Bryan McKenzie, who also serves as an IDA committee member, concedes he’s drawn more to form, whereas Littman states she’s less interested in style than in content.

With the advent of small digital cameras, allowances are sometimes made for style in exchange for compelling exploration of worlds formerly impenetrable.

Reflecting back on a first look at the doc “Silverlake Life” in 1993, Schneider, a former exec director of POV, recalls, “that screening changed my professional life.” So taken was she with the unprecedented intimacy of the film’s viewpoint on the effects of AIDS that lower production values didn’t factor in.

Jury process

Filmmaker Chris Smith, whose feature doc “The Yes Men” was shot on a single mini DV cam agrees, saying, “I don’t care if it’s shot on 35mm or DV, if the film works, it works.”

Despite changes in qualifying and jury selection rules over the past few years (particularly in the Academy), the awards judging process itself is still open for debate.

Most jurors agree on the merits of hashing it out behind closed doors with a group of professional peers when possible.

Viewing films as a group in a theater, rather than watching alone at home, can also make a difference. “These films deserve the focus and attentiveness of a closed space,” adds filmmaker Rory Kennedy, a former Sundance juror. “It’s too easy to cheat at home.”

Littman, involved with both Academy and IDA judging, strongly opposes the process of “judging by numbers,” which involves casting a numerical vote from one to 10, but concedes that group discussion may be impossible when larger juries or committees are involved.

Agrees de la Vega, “Discussion is an important part of the judging process, and the numerical process can sometimes be even more subjective.”

But consensus can be tricky, too. “You wouldn’t want to sink into group-think. It’s not about consensus but about trying to rank relative merits … and you wouldn’t want an award to be the result of one well-spoken critic or juror,” says Schneider.

With films like “Supersize Me” and “Touching the Void” both on this year’s Oscar doc shortlist, some question whether doc subcategories should be created to acknowledge the growing complexity of the genre. Schneider questions “whether it’s not simplistic and perhaps a disservice to the art to lump them all together.”

Drawing lines

“It is in fact a large genre to lump together,” says Smith, “but I wouldn’t want to be the one drawing those lines between subgenres.”

Littman adds that certain subgenres, such as bios, don’t generally win awards.

While it remains to be seen whether “Fahrenheit 9/11” will wind up with a best picture nomination, making it the first doc to compete in that category, all agreed that recognition at that level would be a good thing.

“The separation between documentary and fiction has always been somewhat artificial,” says de la Vega. “All films are fictional in the sense that they are a representation of something. I celebrate the idea that a doc would be up for best picture.”

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