Hollywood Keeps Dissing Documentaries at the Oscars

Self-satisfied movie moguls keep dissing documentaries at the Oscar ceremonies, doing a great disservice to our political culture and democracy.
New York, New York: "Yadda, Yadda, Yadda."

Remember that famous phrase from the Jerry Seinfeld show, a program that ruled the airwaves in part because of its absurdity? The comic got rich while avoiding any serious social commentary. On its last night "the show about nothing," held a farewell party at the real Tom's restaurant on New York's upper west side. Every TV truck in town was there to "go live" from this world-shaking historic cultural event.

On the very same night, two blocks away, the poet Alan Ginsberg, whose passions were about everything, was being memorialized at a packed New York Cathedral. No TV trucks turned out to cover the passing of a prophetic poet even though his death was page 1 News in The New York Times.

Jerry seemed to have taken the money and ran, but then turned up the other night on an audience pandering Oscar telecast. The man who stood for so little was given the job of introducing the documentary awards honoring films that chronicle our times and stand up for what really matters in a tinsel town that mostly doesn't.

If you saw the telecast, you saw what a jerk he was, putting down documentaries and trivializing their impact. What an outrage that Hollywood's patrons would chose Mr. Yadda Yadda to do these honors.

John Sinno, one of the documentary honorees that night has now bravely written an Open Letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to protest the way documentarians were treated so differently than other award categories where directors and actors were praised.

"When comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money, " he writes. "He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very "real" quality, while making a comically sour face. This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films "incredibly depressing!"

Ha! Ha!

Sinno goes on, "Jerry Seinfeld's remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind's reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries "incredibly depressing millions" of viewers not to bother seeing them because they're nothing but downers."

Now I know some of you may be saying that wasn't it great that Al Gore won and that the issue of global warming was showcased at a ceremony that the former Vice President claimed was thoroughly "green." May I remind you that Gore himself was not the winner. Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker who translated his power point presentation into a financially successful movie, won the revered statuette.

Bear in mind also that global warming is the cause du jour in Hollywood these days with even Arnold Schwarzenegger getting reelected on the strength of his becoming a born-again environmentalist. Climate change is a tres' chic and safe subject. Who but a few crank scientists and Bushies are against this danger. Gore himself said it was not political but moral. Not surprisingly, the movie was well funded with distribution by a rich company with lots to spend on marketing.

The movie was also marketed heavily to Academy voters in a big Oscar campaign led in part by Laurie David, wife of Larry, writer of Seinfeld. (Could that be why Jerry was there?) Salon notes she is a "doyenne of Rodeo Drive environs, (and) one of the producers. As Eric Alterman noted in the Atlantic Monthly, David "reviles owners of SUVs as terrorist enablers, yet gives herself a pass when it comes to chartering one of the most wasteful uses of fossil-based fuels imaginable, a private jet." If I were really cynical, I would suspect that it was all the lobbying by activists and pressure by insiders that snared the award for this unfilmic film.

At the same time, the Academy loves to honor and vindicate big names that were passed over in the past. For example, this was widely considered Marty Scorceses' year for the Departed because the industry "owed him." And so it was that Al Gore, the Presidential loser who won and lost in 2000, was this year's winner with more on-stage face-time than anyone else except perhaps Jack Nicholson hamming it up for the cameras. After all, Gore is a "name" and now a certified star in a film world that lives off of stars and those famous for being famous.

The other docs in competition were about ordinary people whose names we didn't know, and in some cases can't pronounce. They were passed over by the trendoids and fashion savants. Al may have lost Floridi-duh but now he's won something that may be even bigger, renewed credibility and celebrity. Hooray for Hollywood!

While Gore very predictably "won," who lost? How about the people of Iraq and all references to the war? Laments Sinno, "there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscar telecast, though it was on the minds of many in the theatre and of millions of viewers. It is wonderful to see the Academy support the protection of the environment. Unfortunately there is more than just one inconvenient truth in this world. Having mention of the Iraq War avoided altogether was a painful reminder for many of us that our country is living in a state of denial. As filmmakers, it is the greatest professional crime we can commit not to speak out with the truth. We owe it to the public." Two Iraq war films had been nominated with only snippets shown.

The lack of outrage on the war expressed at the ceremony while that issue is number one on our national agenda is not surprising considering the way an outspoken Michael Moore was booed in the past and the spanking of other stars who did speak out. The producers of this feel good ceremony worked hard to sanitize it of all political expression.

John Sinno is asking for an apology from the Academy. More is needed. We have to call on them also to rescind a new rule announced before the ceremony that will make it even harder for documentaries to compete in the future.

Explains Sinno, "the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year."

Let us join and support Sinno in his demand and encourage the self-satisfied mavens of Movie land to see how they are dissing documentaries and doing a great disservice to our political culture and democracy. Yadda, Yadda, my ass.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits His latest documentary is “In Debt We Trust. Comments to [email protected].
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