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Oscars: Documentarians probe death penalty, inequality, new academy rules

January 24, 2012 |  3:17 pm


Murder, the death penalty, urban poverty, radical environmentalism and the steep price paid by troops fighting the Afghanistan war are among the thorny topics probed by this year's Oscar nominees for  documentary. But there's another nettlesome subject that many documentary makers are pondering lately: new rules affecting how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses documentaries for Oscar consideration.

The rules, which were made public a couple of weeks ago and would take effect in 2013, include a requirement that documentary films must be reviewed by the Los Angeles Times or New York Times to be eligible for Oscar consideration. The academy says will help cut the growing number of films submitted for Oscars that air on television but may play in only one movie theater for one week (a theatrical run of at least one week is mandatory).

"I'm deeply troubled by these rule changes," said Joe Berlinger, nominated this year with Bruce Sinofsky for their film "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," about the controversial murder convictions and later release of the so-called West Memphis 3. "The review aspect and the one-week run, I think, is deeply flawed."

PHOTOS: Oscar nominees react

Another change is that all 157 members of the documentary branch of the academy will now vote to select the nominees for documentary and the winner will be determined by the academy's entire voting membership of 5,783. Previously, only those academy members who had viewed all the nominated documentaries in a theatrical setting were allowed to vote for the winner.

Berlinger said he supported that change but has other concerns about the way the new procedures were implemented. "I think what has upset some people is that these rules were enacted" without "a larger discussion" taking place among documentary branch members, he said.

Besides "Paradise Lost," the other documentary nominees are Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel's "Pina," about German avant-garde dance director Pina Bausch; "Hell and Back Again" by Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner, about the dangers that U.S. troops face both in Afghanistan and on the home front; "If a Tree Falls:" A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, about the radical environmental group; and "Undefeated," about an under-privileged urban high school football team, by T.J. Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas.


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— Reed Johnson

Photo: Filmmakers Joe Berlinger (left) and Bruce Sinofsky (right) pose with former inmate and West Memphis Three member Jason Baldwin as they hold copies of the Commerical Appeal newspaper with a headline "3 Walk Free," in a scene from the documentary "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory." Credit: Jonathan Silberberg / Associated Press / HBO.

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