A doctor, son of bereaved parents, goes village to village, confronting the murderous gangsters who killed his brother, destroyed his family, and took over his country. It certainly sounds like a viable Best Picture contender, doesn’t it? But The Look Of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s second film about the genocide in Indonesia, has basically no chance of being among the five-to-10 movies nominated for the top prize at this year’s Academy Awards. That’s not because it’s in a language other than English, as acclaimed foreign films—like Amour, for most recent example—do occasionally slip into the lineup. And it’s not because genocide is too heavy of a subject for a group that handed multiple awards to Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful (and may do the same for Son Of Saul this year). No, what will keep The Look Of Silence out of contention for the Academy’s highest honor is also one of the things that makes it so remarkable, so talked-about, so award-worthy: It’s not fiction.
No documentary has ever been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Not a single one. For The Look Of Silence to overcome that 86-year drought, it would have to accomplish what Fahrenheit 9/11 (a box-office smash), Grizzly Man (a critical favorite), and Hoop Dreams (both) could not. Documentaries are technically eligible for the main prize, but none have ever overcome an entrenched bias—the sense that nonfiction films, no matter how good they may be, are inherently less exciting, interesting, or artistic than fiction ones.
Some of all this probably has to do with the member makeup of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. The majority of Oscar voters (over 6,000 of them total) are industry professionals working, in some way or another, within the Hollywood system. If the Oscars often seem unfairly slanted toward studio fare—or, at the very least, toward films featuring studio talent or released by mini-majors like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics—it might be because many of those selecting the nominations have a vested interest in that system. Documentarians, on the other hand, often exist outside of it. They work with smaller crews, secure financing through different channels, and generally operate more independently than their fiction-film counterparts.
But it probably goes deeper than that, to the way our film culture compartmentalizes fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. An all-too-common line of reasoning holds that movies are movies, but documentaries are something separate—they can be noble and “important,” in other words, but that doesn’t mean they can be judged by the same rubric as narrative films. (Notice how the National Board Of Review, the first of the major Oscar precursors, lists the 10 best movies of the year and also the five best documentaries, as though those two things were mutually exclusive.) That makes the Academy’s Documentary Feature category something of a ghetto, a place where nonfiction filmmakers can claim their consolation prize before we all move on to the real movies.
Back in 2009, then-Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece denouncing the kind of dully virtuous social-issue docs the Oscars tend to gravitate toward, at the expense of truly popular and electrifying works. Gleiberman was writing about the Documentary category specifically, and it’s arguable that some of the winners since—like Twenty Feet From Stardom or Searching For Sugar Man—have swung too far in the opposite direction, toward feather-light crowdpleasers. But as it pertains to the industry’s general attitude about docs, his point can be extrapolated into a larger one: If a glorified Power Point presentation like An Inconvenient Truth can be deemed the best documentary of the year, it makes perfect sense that Oscar voters might relegate docs to a whole different sphere. Feature-length educational films shouldn’t be competing for Best Picture.
But The Look Of Silence doesn’t fit that mold. It may tackle a dead-serious topic, and may even function as an educational tool (particularly in Indonesia), but few would confuse it for a dry lecture or a “cultural vegetable.” There’s real drama, danger, and suspense to optometrist Adi’s crusade of truth, to the way he corners unrepentant killers—the perpetrators of the 1965 genocide—and forces them to justify themselves on camera. A fiction film would be blessed to contain “characters” as good as these—not just the abhorrent but undeniably fascinating human monsters that Oppenheimer previously filmed in The Act Of Killing, but also the man demanding accountability from them, in an act of real-life courage much greater than those of most fictional movie heroes. The Look Of Silence is as gripping as any big-studio thriller and as moving as any Weinstein-groomed prestige production. It belongs among the heavyweights, as part of the Best Picture conversation.
But will a documentary ever have a fighting chance of getting nominated? Peter Knegt of Indiewire posed the question five years ago, shortly after the Academy expanded the Best Picture slate from five to 10 nominees. (The rules have since been changed so that between five and 10 films can now be included, though the numbers usually shake out to about nine.) Knegt pointed out that this attempt at increased inclusiveness could benefit animated, foreign, and nonfiction films—but in the half-decade since, no documentary has managed to pull an Amour or an Up and worm its way into the Best Picture race. This despite the fact that the documentary boom of the last couple decades—eased along by the proliferation of affordable digital cameras—shows little signs of slowing; though not every year produces a cultural phenomenon of March Of The Penguins proportions, docs are being made at an unprecedented clip, and moviegoers are still seeing them in numbers that were basically unheard of before the turn of the millennium. In this ongoing documentary renaissance, the absence of a documentary—any documentary—among the Academy’s roll call of the year’s finest suggests a fundamental prejudice against the form.
Hell, take The Look Of Silence—a heavy film that didn’t make a boatload of money—out of the equation for a second. Wouldn’t Amy, the year’s highest-grossing documentary and one of the most acclaimed movies of 2015, make a perfectly accessible nominee? What else but a glass ceiling could keep this commercial and critical success story from claiming a spot reserved for, say, the more traditionally Oscar-friendly but also generally ignored Trumbo? Going further, why are documentaries rarely considered for other categories? Two decades ago, Hoop Dreams failed to score a Best Picture nomination, but it did slip into the editing category—a feat that hasn’t occurred again since. Imagine an Academy that looked at Frederick Wiseman’s enormously ambitious In Jackson Heights and saw another kind of brilliance in film editing, a kind related to the way documentarians shape a movie out of hundreds of hours of raw footage. Or imagine if something like The Nightmare, with its terrifying dream sequences, could be a viable Visual Effects candidate, despite its small budget and its nonfiction subject matter. Keeping documentaries imprisoned in their own five-film category devalues the craftsmanship that goes into them.
All of this matters for the same reason that the annual Academy Awards circus matters at all: With an Oscar comes money, career clout, and industry influence. When a film pops up in any AMPAS category, it appears on the radar of countless more moviegoers; a nomination is essentially a neon sign, pointing audiences toward films they may never have heard of. And who could use that kind of boost in visibility more than documentarians, who slave away in relative obscurity on serious and sometimes unglamorous projects, often fighting to find funding for their next feature or the one after that? The Look Of Silence, the rare film that’s truly culturally important, may very well end up competing for Best Documentary this February. (It made the shortlist, and its predecessor, The Act Of Killing, previously scored a nomination.) But who knows how high its profile might rise, and how many people it might reach, if the Academy made less distinction between the best picture and the best picture that also happens to feature real people doing real things in real places.