The Contenders 2011: Documentaries

This year’s documentary Oscar race just got bigger. With a rule change that allows films to qualify over a 16-month period (Sept. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2011, instead of just September to August), there are more films eligible than ever before, leaping from 101 entries in 2010 to 125.

According to Rob Epstein, chair of the Academy’s doc branch, the reason for the expansion was to put documentaries on the calendar year like most of the Academy’s other categories, meaning things will go back to normal in 2012.

Still, it’s just one more sign of the increasing viability of nonfiction cinema.

Contenders include a wide diversity of titles, from a 3D dance film (“Pina”) to movies about a horse whisperer (“Buck”), a race car driver (“Senna”) and a photographer (“Bill Cunningham New York”), as well as docs from Oscar vets Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Steve James and James Marsh.

As in previous years, there are important social-issue docs, ranging from “Better This World,” a look at the legal system and civil disobedience in post-9/11 America, to “Position Among the Stars,” which depicts poverty in Indonesia.

Doc insiders note a tendency among voters to favor films with a message.

But Roadside Attraction’s Eric D’Arbeloff, who backed 2009 winner “The Cove” and now has Marsh’s “Project Nim,” argues that issue docs and crowd-pleasers are not mutually exclusive.

“They often go hand-in-hand,” he says, noting 2004 Oscar nominee “Super Size Me,” which “has a social justice element, but it couldn’t be more entertaining. The idea that the Academy is interested only in things that take themselves seriously isn’t true.”

Ryan Werner, marketing VP at IFC Entertainment, points out that documentaries are “becoming more cinematic,” which is opening up the category to a wider variety of entries.

Given this shift, Werner laments the fact that “Pina” will be judged by Oscar voters via screeners. “It’s at a real disadvantage, because it was conceived in 3D and it’s going to be released in 3D,” he says. “The same thing happened on (Herzog’s) ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams,’?” which failed to make the shortlist last year, he notes.

But Herzog’s new film, the capital punishment inquiry “Into the Abyss,” could make the grade this year. If it does, the nomination could reopen an examination of the death penalty.

Indeed, for some doc filmmakers, that’s the true value of a nomination or an award. They say the Oscar’s nonfiction category is the only area where kudos can actually lead to making the world a better place — which arguably makes it the Academy’s most significant.

James, whose film “The Interrupters” looks at the epidemic of violence in Chicago, admits, “If it should get nominated or even win, it could make people sit up and take notice: This issue of violence is still very much with us in most major American cities.”

“Better This World” co-director Katie Galloway concurs: “To get those issues in front of an Academy audience is a dream.”

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