Well, we're down to the wire, folks. Next Tuesday morning, the Academy Award nominations will be announced, and people in the motion picture industry will likely have spent the night wide awake and wondering if a film they worked on, or if they themselves, will be nominated for that most golden of statues. While the well-lauded likes of Meryl Streep will perhaps be content to sleep in, for others, a nomination could have a galvanizing effect on their films and careers.
In this latter category are two documentary filmmakers with Triangle ties. Nancy Buirski, director of The Loving Story, and Michael Galinsky, who co-directed Battle for Brooklyn with his wife Suki Hawley, may be around that morning to first receive the news. Or they may be notified secondhand, like when they heard last November of their films being on the shortlist for documentaries eligible for Oscar contention.
"Someone wrote to me to congratulate me," remembers Buirski. "I wasn't sure what it was about."
As for Galinsky, he found out via the social network grapevine. "Someone posted it on my Facebook page," he says. "I screamed so loud, I scared the interns. I did!"
It makes sense for Buirski and Galinsky to be shocked and surprised by the news. For both filmmakers, it's only been their first time out making a theatrical, documentary feature—and already, there is the possibility that they could become Oscar nominees, a designation that would be an extraordinary reward for the time and effort they put into their flicks.
Buirski, who is best known as the founder and former executive director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, spent several years snagging photos and archival footage, splicing together her story of an interracial, illegally married couple being forced to leave their Virginia home in 1958, and their struggle to return home after their exile. The same goes for Chapel Hill native Galinsky, who, along with Hawley, spent nearly a decade chronicling the story of Brooklynites fighting to keep their homes from being seized through eminent domain, when an Ohio real-estate developer wants to build an arena complex for the New Jersey Nets.
These days, both Buirski and Galinsky insist that their time mostly consists of just getting the word out on their movies, in the hopes that more people—and not just Oscar voters—will check them out. Buirski hit paydirt when she hooked up with HBO: The movie will make its television debut next month, on Valentine's Day, which also means that HBO's promotion of the film will overlap with the Oscar voting period. (Buirski also made a deal with Icarus Films, which will put the movie in theaters in the next few months.)
Meanwhile, Galinsky has still been screening his film in art houses and film centers all over the country. Last November, both filmmakers came back here to screen their movies. Buirski, who premiered her film at last year's Full Frame festival, screened the film for teenagers at Durham's Carolina Theatre, while Galinsky had a screening at the Chelsea in Chapel Hill. (Another local screening of Battle is scheduled for early February, to benefit both the film and the Mebane nonprofit Stone Circles at The Stone House. Check stonecircles.org for more information.)
While the films tackle different subjects, they both carry the theme of regular Joes and Jos backed up against a wall by oppressive, corrupt forces and must take action themselves, perhaps making history in the process. This is certainly the sort of sympathetic, non-narrative filmmaking that Oscar voters appreciate and, eventually, vote for. But, as of late, the big news involving the documentary category has been the Academy's proposed changes to make sure all documentary films get a fair shot at being nominated.
Throughout the years, the Oscars has notoriously shut out modestly successful, critically acclaimed docs that have went on to become classics. What's unfortunate about the new practice of releasing the documentary shortlist (the first of many Oscar shortlists that have showed up in the past several weeks) before the nominations is that the outrage over who got snubbed begins way, way earlier than usual. Films released last year by veteran documentarians Errol Morris (Tabloid), Steve James (The Interrupters) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss) were nowhere to be found on the shortlist. Sadly, this isn't new for them. Before he won a Best Documentary Oscar for his 2003 film The Fog of War, Morris' breakthrough 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line was famously snubbed by the Academy. James' much-lauded 1994 doc Hoop Dreams was another notorious snubbee, only landing a nomination for film editing. And although he was nominated for an Oscar for his 2008 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog's previous docs, including Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Grizzly Man, were not recognized by Academy voters.
Under these new rules, spearheaded by filmmaker/ Academy governing board member Michael Moore (whose debut 1989 doc Roger & Me was also infamously dissed by the Academy), documentaries that have had theatrical runs in New York and/or Los Angeles, as well as have gotten reviews in either The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, are the ones that'll be eligible for Oscar consideration.
Furthermore, the shortlist and, eventually, the nominees will be determined by a vote of the full documentary branch, not secret committees of 10 or fewer people from the branch, a cliqueish voting process that has hobbled the documentary category for years. The whole branch will also decide who's the winner.
These proposed rules go into effect for next year's Oscars, which means they don't affect Buirski's and Galinsky's films. And even if the rules were in effect for this year's awards, both movies have already abided by them. In order to qualify themselves for Oscar consideration, The Loving Story had an unpublicized one-week run at a theater in LA, while Battle for Brooklyn had runs in both LA and New York. Both Buirski and Galinsky believe that while the rules could possibly result in better voting practices in the future, it could also be a bitch for documentary filmmakers struggling to get their films into theaters, in the hopes of receiving some Oscar love.
"I think, really, the main idea is that they're really trying to separate films that were made for television and qualified [for Oscar consideration]," says Galinsky.
"I was reading Michael Moore's comments, and he said something like, they'll qualify them by the rules, but they won't let anyone know they weren't in theaters. And that's what he was trying to address. But, at the same time, I hope they understand [filmmakers] will feel like it will interfere with their ability to get qualified, because you're still facing the deal where you still have to get into theaters—and I know how hard that can be."
Buirski feels the rules may be tough on both filmmakers and the Academy's doc voters. "It's a real challenge to come up with the appropriate guidelines for the documentary category, and I think that's evidenced by the fact that there have been so many changes over so many years, and it's not an easy one to settle on," says Buirski. "I think documentaries are awfully hard to make and it's hard to find distribution for, and acquiring theatrical distribution is a real challenge for documentary filmmakers.
"I don't have the answer. I don't have a comment on whether they're right or wrong on this. I just feel like it's worth noting how difficult it is to find the answer."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Waiting for Oscar."