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In Oscar Documentary Race, First Time Can Be the Charm

It’s never easy being green, but if you’re a documentary filmmaker it can have its advantages. Especially come Oscar season.

In the past two decades, 12 directors have taken home the Academy Award for their very first documentary theatrical feature. They include Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) and Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugarman”). Those films beat out docus made by veteran nonfiction helmers like Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War”), Wim Wenders (“Pina”) and Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life Animated”).

When it comes to receiving a nomination in the documentary feature category, the odds are even better. In the last decade more than 20 first time feature docu helmers have nabbed an Oscar nod. They include Ellen Kuras (“The Betrayal — Nerakhoon”), Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”), Charles Ferguson (“No End in Sight”) and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Finding Vivian Maier”).

Comparatively, in the last 10 years, only two first time narrative feature directors have been nominated in the best director category.

“It’s more of an accessible field to arrive at as a relative newcomer because there is less money involved,” says Thom Powers, TIFF documentary programmer and artistic director of DOC NYC. “You don’t have to wrangle A-list Hollywood actors to get inside the club.”

Newbie doc directors are also benefiting from recent Academy rule changes, an increased amount of documentary distributors — most notably Netflix and Amazon — and a campaign season full of cocktail hours and post-screening schmoozing.

“For those filmmakers who are newcomers, the doors aren’t closed for them to get to know the old guard,” Powers adds.

Thanks in part to AMPAS’ intricate, ever-changing system of qualifying rules, the doc category has long been one of the most controversial.

The Academy has been honoring documentaries since 1941, but it took until 2001 for an official documentary branch to be formed. In 1999 (the 72nd Academy Awards), a two-round system for determining the nominees was implemented: a preliminary round in which a committee of Academy members involved in documentary filmmaking viewed all the eligible entries and determined a 12-title shortlist. The shortlisted titles were then screened at three locations; all local members of the Academy were invited to attend and vote to determine the five nominees.

Prior to that, a selection committee of an unknown number, open to any Academy member, could screen docs and nominate finalists. That led to years of criticism for the docs selected as well as those denied a nomination, including Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams”; Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb”; Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”; Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line”; and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Brother’s Keeper.”

Released in 1992, “Brother’s Keeper” was Berlinger’s second documentary.

“Do I think that some members of this branchless committee wanted to put a stop to this film and voted for the wrong reasons? Absolutely,” says Berlinger. “But it’s OK. Awards are great when you get them, but they aren’t everything and luckily the system has changed.”

After the formation of the doc branch in 2001, all nominations balloting was limited to members of the branch. To vote on the final five, a doc member had to prove he or she had seen all five films in their entirety in a theatrical venue. In 2012 (the 85th Academy Awards) the smaller viewing groups in the preliminary round were eliminated. All active members of the documentary branch were provided access to all the eligible entries. Their votes determined the 15-title shortlist and, in a second round of balloting, the five nominees. That same year (2012) another new rule went into effect when the category winner was determined by the Academy’s entire voting membership.

While there has been plenty of uproar about the shortlist since 2001, the outcry about omissions has yet to reach the level it did in 1994 when “Hoop Dreams” was ignored. That said, outrage did ensure in 2012 when James’ “The Interrupters” was left off the shortlist, and then again in 2014 when his “Life Itself” was not nominated. James’ turbulent history in the category has caused many to question if nominations are based on merit or popularity.

But doc branch member Sam Pollard, who was nominated with Spike Lee in 1998 for “4 Little Girls,” thinks quality trumps politics.

“There are so many films that [the documentary branch] can see and vote on,” he says. “This year we have 170 eligible docs and yes, a lot of them are by first-time documentary filmmakers and a lot of them are from well-known filmmakers, but we are honest about what films we like and what we don’t like. It’s not about the person.”

Maybe it’s not the person, but could it be the little gold man?

Barbara Kopple took home statues in 1977 and 1991, and despite making new films consistently, hasn’t been nominated since. After winning in the category, Errol Morris, Davis Guggenheim and Alex Gibney have never been nominated again despite their inclusion on various shortlists throughout the years. Newbies including Emad Burnat (“Five Broken Cameras”), David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) and Danfung Dennis (“To Hell and Back Again”) nabbed nominations instead. This year, some in the community are predicting that Laura Poitras’ eligible film, “Risk,” will not make the shortlist because she has already won once for “Citizenfour.”

“I’m sure in the back of many Academy voters’ minds, there is a feeling that we should spread the love around, so if someone recently won an Oscar, they should give someone else a little time in the spotlight,” says Academy member and two time doc nominee Marshall Curry. “That can be frustrating when an old-timer makes a terrific film that gets snubbed. But to me, complaining that the system is rigged against well-known filmmakers is a little like complaining about affirmative action when you are a white male.”

Berlinger, who was nominated in 2012 for “Paradise Lost 3” and lost to “Undefeated’s” newbie directors TJ Martin and Dan Lindsay, agrees. But he doesn’t think the system is without its hiccups.

“People, unfortunately, sometimes vote strategically,” he says.

But ultimately, Berlinger believes that younger, greener filmmakers have a good shot at Oscar glory not because they aren’t known, or because a director has won an Oscar.

“When you make your first or second film you are often pouring everything you have into it,” he says. “It’s often a make- it or break-it situation and you are trying to establish yourself in a very competitive world, so those films often are the genre busters. They are films where you smell in every frame somebody going all out to make something happen.”

Berlinger is currently embarking on his 14th film and has two films in Oscar contention: “Intent to Destroy,” which he directed, and “From the Ashes,” which he executive produced.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not giving my work my all,” he says. “But it’s a lot easier for me to make my films now. I think there is a human tendency to reward somebody who is breaking rules and taking risks.”

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