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From Time (2020), dir. Garrett Bradley, nominated for this year's Best Documentary Feature Oscar (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

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In 2016, Québec Cinéma rebranded its annual awards. It had a new name (the Prix Iris), new eligibility rules, and six new categories. Following the lead of the Canadian Screen Awards, they added two prizes for feature-length documentaries, recognizing editing and cinematography (in 2018, they also added a prize for best sound). It sent a clear message to artists and the public: Documentary is an essential part of Quebec’s filmmaking tradition, and it was time to acknowledge the intimacies of its creation and not just the films themselves. Most of the films nominated and awarded so far for these awards have been boundary-pushing, auteur-driven works like Ta peau si lisse, La part du diable, and Gulîstan, terre de roses. No one movie has swept all the categories, pointing to the strength and diversity of the field. But Quebec and Canada remain relatively small in terms of film production. What would happen if cinema’s most prestigious awards body decided to do the same? Should the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduce more Oscars specifically for documentaries? 

Documentaries are finding a wider and more passionate audience, largely thanks to streaming platforms. Films and series like Tiger King, Making of a Murderer, 13th, and The Last Dance have spurred innumerable viral moments and discussions, resonating with wide audiences in ways that most Oscar-nominated films only dream of. The days of nonfiction film as a niche are over. Encouraging greater understanding and appreciation for how documentaries are made could serve an essential role in increasing media literacy. This may be overly optimistic, since most of the public and Academy voting body was never able to learn the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, but a little goes a long way.

From My Octopus Teacher (2020), dir. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar (image courtesy Netflix)

And in line with the Academy’s recent efforts to expand its ranks, documentary forms fertile ground for more diverse voices. Last year, four of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature were directed by women. Even before #OscarsSoWhite, the documentary categories were some of the few consistent refuges for nonwhite people at the Oscars. Nonfiction is and has been far more accessible to working-class filmmakers and artists. Of course, higher accessibility has also meant lower pay and less stability. Greater validation for the art might spur better support for these filmmakers. 

There are undeniably significant obstacles in the way of such a change. Most of the Academy voting body works in fiction. As the Oscars fight for relevance by continually appealing to popular cinema, giving more attention to lower-profile work might counteract their attempts to be “relevant.” What purpose do the Academy Awards serve? Is Oscar Night just a gala of glamor and excess, or can it exercise substantial change within the film industry, or even society? The Academy would do well to take more stands favoring artists and workers, rather than just large corporations and popular films. 

From Collective (2019), dir. Alexander Nanau, nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar (image courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

While this may be wishful thinking, broaching the possibility can open up essential discussions. We’ve seen it happen around campaigns for the recognition of stunt workers, for example. We can endlessly argue about the value and politics of these prizes, but they still stand as one of the best ways to acknowledge the value of art beyond the commercial. Lest anyone think that Quebec is some paradise where documentaries are all loved and adored by the public, know that the changes made by Québec Cinéma came under harsh and continued criticism, with claims that the Prix Iris prizes are irrelevant and out of touch. But they stood their ground. Awards don’t only serve public tastes, but expand it.

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Justine Smith

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.