More International Voters Could Broaden the Oscar Documentary Field

·6-min read

When people talk about diversifying the entertainment industry, it almost always centers on race, gender or sexuality. But one of the most radical shifts in Hollywood has gone largely unnoticed: The Oscars’ documentary branch more than doubled its membership over the past five years, and around half of its new voters are based outside the U.S.
The move hasn’t just turned more foreign docs into Oscar finalists and nominees. It’s now influencing which films get funded and distributed, and determining winners in categories as big as international feature and best picture.

“We have an effect on what wins in other categories, so when you see a [South Korean] film like ‘Parasite’ win best picture, our branch probably played a big role in that,” says Roger Ross Williams, a documentary branch governor.

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“We have a huge block of 26% international members, and they’re not necessarily voting for the same U.S.-based films. They have a different way of judging the art of filmmaking.”

During his six-year term, it’s expanded to represent 52 countries, becoming the most geo-diverse of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ seventeen branches.

Tom Oyer, AMPAS senior VP of member relations and awards, says another ripple effect is that “in the last five years, we’re finding more and more documentaries being submitted as their country’s official selection for best international feature,” including 2019’s “Honeyland” from Macedonia and 2020’s “Collective” from Romania, both of which were nominated for doc and international feature. Other breakthrough noms include “The Cave” (Denmark/Syria) and “For Sama” (Syria/U.K./U.S.) in 2019, and 2020’s Chile submission “The Mole Agent.” And while many commented that the 2020 winner “My Octopus Teacher” was a Netflix Original nature doc defeating more hard-hitting films, fewer noted that it was a South African feature.

In 2016, AMPAS launched the A2020 initiative to double the number of women and people of color in its ranks by the end of the decade, a goal it surpassed. As part of this effort, A2020 subcommittee chair Williams worked with the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and other groups to expand the doc branch from some 300 filmmakers to more than 630, including 168 based outside the U.S.

“All of these international members now get to sponsor new members from their countries, so I’d like to see that number continue to grow,” he says.

Aside from Williams’ tireless efforts, from creating an international search team to persuading AMPAS execs that expanding the branch was “a worthy cause,” other factors helped.

“The documentary branch was created in 2001, and for a while there was only a limited number of new members that each branch could invite,” Oyer says. “So there were a lot of filmmakers who should have been Academy members earlier. Documentaries began exploding [in popularity], and there became a need to look at which filmmakers should be considered for membership at around the same time A2020 began.”

Another pressure cooker for change was the Oscars’ troubled history with docs. For decades, Academy members would volunteer for a nominating committee, choosing films in a haphazard process that left top award-winning hits such as 1989’s “Roger & Me” and 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” without doc feature nominations. And after the doc branch finally launched, it antagonized filmmakers with new qualifications, including a four-city theatrical run in 2002, an eight-city stint in 2005 and a 14-city one in 2007 that was soon abandoned when people balked. (The requirement was recently pared back to a weeklong showing in one of six metropolitan areas.)

What let more foreign doc features enter the mix was a 2018 rule change: they could qualify without a theatrical run if they won certain awards at select film festivals, or if they were a country’s official selection for international feature.

“The year we realized that there was an international voting block taking the Oscar shortlist in new directions was 2018,” says Doc NYC artistic director Thom Powers. Films including “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” “The Silence of Others” and the 2019 Oscar nominee “Of Fathers and Sons” “weren’t on many people’s prognostication lists. I was caught by surprise as much as anyone.” DOC NYC, a fest running Nov. 10-18 in Gotham, responded by creating a winner’s circle section of international film fest prizewinners that may have escaped the notice of U.S. audiences.

The Intl. Documentary Assn. and DOC NYC release their own shortlists in advance of Oscar’s 15 films, due out Dec. 21. The two international films listed on both shortlists this year are Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated gay immigrant tale “Flee” (Denmark’s international film entry released in the U.S. by Neon/Participant) and Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” a portrait of a psychoactive Ethiopian plant’s impact on local culture (from Ethiopia/U.S./Qatar and Janus Films).

The third international feature on DOC NYC’s shortlist is branch members E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Thai cave drama “The Rescue” (from U.S./U.K. and National Geographic Documentary Films/Greenwich Entertainment).

“It’s about time,” says U.S.-based Vasarhelyi, who is equally excited about experimental U.S. documentarians she calls “the Radical Branch” being added as members. “The doc branch has always been very progressive, and the more progressive we can be to lead other branches, the better.”

“The documentary tradition largely comes from outsiders telling stories about other communities,” says IDA exec director Rick Perez. “What we’re seeing is an attempt at a leveling of the playing field.”

And as outsiders become insiders, it’s having an impact on the films that are getting financed. “Funders in the nonprofit sector are much more aware of who’s telling these stories, and initial development money is often coming from there,” he says.

Many start in international pitch markets, including IDFA Forum in the Netherlands, DocedgeKolkata in India and Hot Docs Forum in Toronto.
“The rise of the popularity of documentary film on HBO, Netflix and now Hulu and Amazon Prime is a good thing,” Perez says. “But their aesthetic, power and marketing budgets could threaten the inclusivity and multiplicity of perspectives that make documentaries special. The problem is, how do you mitigate the influence of the massive amount
of dollars that are going to win these awards?”

Having more non-U.S. Oscar voters is one guardrail against this. “By expanding internationally, we ensure that the Academy Awards isn’t dominated by ‘docu-tainment,’” Perez says.

It’s possible that this new voting block could bring different styles and perspectives to mainstream doc filmmaking, similar to how the French New Wave influenced American auteurs. But it may also lead to more “popular” mainstream docs being shut out of top spots in the awards race. That’s the same scenario that led to calls for a doc branch in the first place, and it mirrors the way indie films have crowded out big-budget hits at the Oscars, arguably helping to crater the ceremony’s ratings.

Yet IDA’s Perez — who, like AMPAS’ Williams, is an award-winning director of indie docs — has more important concerns.

“Some of these publicity and marketing budgets for awards season are bigger than the films themselves,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll have an important, meaningful film about a social issue, but its publicity budget could be twice what nonprofits and social activists are paying to try to fix the issue itself. Kind of ironic, right?”

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