Helmers test rules with outside-the-box docs

This year's contenders don't fit the normal format

You have to stylize. There’s absolutely no danger in that,” Werner Herzog said in a 2007 interview. “The danger is to stupidly believe that depicting facts gives us much insight. If facts were the only thing that counted, the telephone directory would be the book of books.”

At one time, Herzog’s remarks might have been considered blasphemy in the world of documentary. But as acclaimed nonfiction filmmakers from Herzog to Errol Morris to Michael Moore interrogate, restage or manipulate the worlds they’re examining, factuality has become less clear-cut, giving way to ambiguity and subjectivity.

Historically, Academy voters have been slow to acknowledge the form’s evolution. As Errol Morris said during his Oscar acceptance speech for 2003’s “Fog of War,” 25 years after his first feature, “I’d like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films. … I thought it would never happen.”

Since then, there has been a bit of movement toward accepting divergent styles and broader definitions of documentary filmmaking. Recent Academy nominees and winners, such as “Man on Wire,” “The Cove” and Herzog’s own “Encounters at the End of the World,” are full of dramatic reenactments and poetic interludes that wouldn’t have cut it a decade ago.

“The whole idea of cinema verite has been knocked down,” says Reid Rosefelt, a publicist who has helped tout several of Errol Morris’ documentaries over the years.

Entertainment attorney John Sloss, who worked on Morris’ 1988 Oscar snub “The Thin Blue Line,” which he says was considered “heresy” in doc circles at the time, agrees times have changed.

“I think the breadth is expanding of what is acceptable in documentary technique,” says Sloss, who reps and distributed this year’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” British artist Banksy’s irreverent takedown of the art world and a film that has faced similar issues about its factual record. “There are still people who doubt it’s a documentary,” admits Sloss.

Indeed, as the widespread press questioning of the veracity of “Gift Shop” indicates, documentaries that don’t fit inside the traditional nonfiction box still face hurdles. “Jack-Ass 3D” and “Catfish,” for example, are among the highest-grossing nonfiction films of the year, but few organizations are categorizing them as docs (including Sundance, which screened “Catfish” in its Spotlight section).

“I think the political and social documentaries tend to be awarded the most,” says Ryan Werner, marketing VP for IFC Films, which qualified Herzog’s latest “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” among others. Werner cites the 2003 nonfiction groundbreaker, “Tarnation,” on which he also worked, as the type of “one-of-a-kind” doc that was overlooked because of its unconventional form. “It was easily one of the most acclaimed films of that year,” he says. “But people didn’t consider it a documentary. Maybe it was just too personal.”

Nanette Burstein, who was nominated for the 1999 cinema verite portrait “On the Ropes,” acknowledges that her subsequent more stylized work “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “American Teen” are indicative of the kinds of docs that are “rarely nominated.”

But with Michael Moore’s newly elected position on AMPAS’ board of governors, perhaps attitudes will change more rapidly, giving personal docs such as “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” “Gasland” and “Winnebago Man” a shot against more traditional issue-oriented studies such as “12th and Delaware” (abortion), “The Tillman Story” (Afghanistan) and “Inside Job” (the economic meltdown).

Outgoing AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis acknowledges many of this year’s docs “raise some intriguing questions” about the nature of documentary. “Documentaries make an implicit pledge that what they’re presenting is real and it hasn’t been manipulated,” says Davis, who concedes that “even with that premise, of course, if you poke at it enough, there are always footnotes.”

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