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Oscar Winner Deborah Shaffer Statement on Oscar Docu Short List Omissions

by Peter Belsito
December 18, 2013 12:00 PM
  • |
Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Deborah Shaffer

Deborah is a dear friend, family and business, for many years.

She is a lifelong dedicated documentary filmmaker, one of our best. Her docu Oscar and Emmy awards attest to the talent and dedication.

Recently she has been discussing with me what she feels are the current shortcomings in this year's nominating Documentary Oscar process and especially the recently published 'short list' by the Academy.

We are very interested in hearing your feedback or comments on this issue which is NOT likely to be discussed or raised in any other forum but which we consider VERY important!!

Following is her statement on the present situation and the omission of certain very important titles from the AMPAS 'short list' of this year's documentaries..

by Deborah Shaffer -

As an Academy Award-winning documentary director and member of the doc branch of AMPAS, I was the lucky recipient of all 149 qualified documentaries in 2013. It has certainly been one of the more bountiful and exciting years ever. I wish that, as with fiction features, we had the option to nominate up to 10 titles. There are certainly enough excellent, strong candidates to fill a slate of 10. But there is something about this year's short list that has made me sad and disappointed and I don't know whether the fault lies in the process or the end result, but it's certainly the latter where it shows up.

Among the qualified films this year were an incredibly strong number of docs on African American history and culture, including Let the Fire Burn, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Gideon's Army, The New Black, and American Promise. NOT ONE OF THESE FILMS IS ON THE SHORT LIST despite having been recognized at numerous other festivals and year end award events. It suggests a distressing pattern of oversight, and even more disappointing since 4 of the above films were directed by Black women.

Oscar Winner Deborah Shaffer

I don't have any quick or easy solutions about how to address this. We are all bemoaning the nearly impossible burden of watching approximately 150 documentaries, yet I don't think anyone wants to go back to the bad old committee system. Certainly continuing the trend to diversifying the branch membership across gender, age, and race should help. Personally I would also like to see a system where fewer films qualify, making it more possible for more members to screen those docs that do make it through the gate.

As it stands now, anyone with enough money to four wall a theatrical opening in New York and LA can meet the qualifications, essentially buying their way into the Oscar pool. There should be a way to close this loophole, which I estimate would cut the numbers by at least one third to one half. Our field has grown so much in recent years, and the overall quality of the films that have made it to the short list is staggeringly high. We need to find a way to make sure we reward the best, and not just the best known.
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  • Lynn Feinerman | December 18, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    THANK YOU, Deborah, for your notice of the exclusion of work by African American Women from the short list. It is a mystery to me how that short list is established, and as one of the directors of an Academy Award winning feature documentary (1986 - Broken Rainbow) I wonder about the process. As a member of SAG I receive movies for voting on the SAG awards, and wonder about that process as well. It seems a popularity contest most of the time, who actually gets on the short list and who actually wins.

  • mwblock | December 19, 2013 10:57 AM

    Hi Lynn,
    I handled US distribution for BROKEN RAINBOW.
    I don't believe we never met. You might to correct IMDB so your credit of directing this work with Victoria Mudd would be reflected in the history of this great film.

    As a member of the documentary nominating committee I can only say that being able to list 15 films on the short list was a challenge. So many excellent films so hard to come up with just 15. One votes for the films and not the filmmakers..

  • Justin | December 18, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    Shaffer's comments make no sense. If all of the films that she identified were highly recognized at many festivals, then they were the best known. Surely they were far better known than the Tim Hetherington film, First Cousin Once Removed, or The Life According to Sam, which were not nearly as visible on the festival circuit and in theatrical release as the films she cites.

    She also seems to charge that the reason these films were not shortlisted was because they dealt with African American issues. There are a number of films on the short list that deal with African and African American subjects.

    What she doesn't point out is that one of the things that ties three of the films that she cites as being worthy isn't just that they deal with issues of race but that they are historical films that primarily use archival footage, at least one exclusively. Very few films of this type receive Oscar attention, as in the case of the brilliant film Senna and last year's Central Park Five. These are primarily films frequently created by editors, not in the field where filmmakers spend years shooting their films, so they are automatically disadvantaged when looking at the many times years-long, and often brilliant cinematography and in-the-field directing that went into so many of the short-listed films.

    So Shaffer's comments would be stronger if she argued her case simply about The New Black, American Promise, and Gideon's Army. Even then there is no evidence whatsoever for racial discrimination in the documentary branch and it is audacious that she would suggest as much. These last three didn't get recognized because they didn't make the top 15, we don't know if they would have been in the top 20. Perhaps they would have.

    It's a list. There are always going to be good films left off and questionable films that get put on. But even in the case of the lesser-known films they struck enough individual Academy members as highly worthy that they received enough votes to make the cut. There was no collusion towards recognizing unworthy films.

    When the nominees come out, more great films are going to be eliminated. Lists get more subjective and easier to criticize the closer and closer they get to the top. It's not clear
    why Shaffer finds this so shocking. It's not a problem of process. It's not a question of racial prejudice. It's the nature of list-making.

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