It's the Documentary stupid - to paraphrase Bill Clinton.
This year BAFTA has added a new category, Best Documentary, to “recognise documentary feature films”. It's great news for all documentary filmmakers out there, especially giving a second chance to those overlooked by the Oscars® (think Steve James’s The Interrupters and Asif Kapadia’s Senna). As Round One for voting will open on December 8th, it seems a good time to look back at how documentaries have made their impact.
A theatrical documentary award was presented by the Academy between 1948 and 1990. BAFTA’s Film Committee has chosen to re-introduce this category now in recognition of the number of high-quality theatrical documentaries released in cinemas in the UK each year. 1990 was the year of Pretty Woman and Ghost, and the documentaries in the early 90’s were the likes of 1991 In Bed with Madonna, When We Were Kings, Hoop Dreams, but other than that they were a novelty in cinemas. This started to change in 2000 with one man: Michael Moore: with Roger and Me, followed by Bowling with Colombine (2003), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Sicko (2007). Documentary had made it back into cinemas, and was putting bums on seats.
Mingled among these were key docs such as Spellbound (2002), Touching the Void (2003), Born into Brothels (2003), The Corporation (2003), and Super Size Me (2004). When they hit, they hit big, along with Fahrenheit 9/11, there was also An Inconvenient Truth (2005), and March of the Penguins(2006) - it was a Golden Age. However, underneath these titles, the box office and theatrical runs for documentaries were few and far between. 2007 onwards saw more frequent releases of documentaries in cinemas. The 11th Hour, Anvil, Trouble the Water, No End in Sight, Man on Wire, Last Train Home, The Yes Men Fix the World and many more came into the limelight.
In 2009 the Social Issue documentary genre hit big. At the beginning of that year, The Age of Stupid was satellite premiered in the UK, then later across the worldwith its New York premiere. Social issues docs were now big business and the public cared. The Age of Stupid was swiftly followed by The End of the Line, and Burma VJ. Suddenly everyone was talking about documentary. And then when it couldn’t get bigger, along came Food Inc, which became the Box Office king of the year, and with Oprah’s approval, The Cove took home Oscar® glory.
Now we are seeing the emergence of documentary blockbusters; Inside Job, Restrepo, Waiting for Superman, Countdown to Zero, and this year Senna. And documentary is even joining the rush to 3D with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina and TT3D. My personal favourite is where documentary filmmakers start subverting the rules of what is a documentary (well done Errol Morris for starting this off), with film like Tabloid, Catfish, Dreams of a Life, and The Greatest Story Ever Sold.
And to bring it back to the UK, Colin Welland was right. The Brits are indeed coming: Lucy Walker (Wasteland), the late Tim Hetherington (Restrepo), Kevin MacDonalad (Life in a Day), James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Banksy (Exit Thru the Giftshop). Last year saw three British Directors at the Oscars®, but bizarrely they had no equivalent award to attend back in Blighty.
So what can we expect to see for this year’s BAFTA Awards?
To celebrate the reinstatement of Documentary, this year BAFTA worked with Dogwoof who released Tabloid, and welcomed the multi award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to BAFTA HQ to deliver BAFTA’s annual David Lean film lecture.
Based on the Oscar® list then it could be Bill Cunningham New York, Pina or Buck. On famous names, then the likes of Steve James and Werner Herzog look strong. And on box office, Senna and TT3D are the stand outs. Though given the Brits love of animals, Project Nim has to be a good bet. Essentially no one knows. And that is what is great about this new category, and I personally hope that Dogwoof played its own little part in the emergence of the Theatrical Documentary, and this new award category. Either way, this is the year of the Documentary.
BAFTA says that the award will only usually be presented if 15 or more films are entered. So Dogwoof has made sure we had 15 Theatrical releases this year, and 15 nominations. So there will be a Documentary category this year, guaranteed.