“You have to stylize. There’s absolutely no danger in that,” Werner Herzog said in a 2007 interview. “The danger is to stupidly believe that depicting facts gives us much insight. If facts were the only thing that counted, the telephone directory would be the book of books.” At one time, Herzog’s remarks might have been considered blasphemy in the world of documentary. But as acclaimed nonfiction filmmakers from Herzog to Errol Morris to Michael Moore interrogate, restage or manipulate the worlds they’re examining, factuality has become less clear-cut, giving way to ambiguity and subjectivity.
Historically, Academy voters have been slow to acknowledge the form’s evolution, but an increasing array of unconventional docs are pushing the boundaries forward. For this Variety article, “Helmers test rules with outside-the-box docs,” I briefly examine the Oscar doc category and changing conceptions of what defines a documentary. It’s a cursory look at a much larger issue, admittedly, and it will be very interesting to how this year’s Oscar doc nominees may reflect (or not) these evolutions.