Forget Best Picture or Best Actor, the Oscar for Best Documentary may be the Academy Awards' most important and influential. Consider the platform it gave to the problems of global warming when "An Inconvenient Truth" won the top prize. Or the media ruckus that Michael Moore caused when he rallied against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. Or more recently, the way "Gasland" raised awareness about fracking. It's nice for anyone to win an award, but how many films can say they influenced the national discourse?
For Variety's Contenders issue, I wrote an article about this year's doc race. At the end of the piece, I touched upon this very issue. Imagine, for instance, if Werner Herzog's new film "Into the Abyss" could make the final five this year. Could the attention of an Oscar nomination reopen a serious re-examination of the death penalty in the U.S.?
As I wrote, "Indeed, for some doc filmmakers, that's the true value of a nomination or an award. Oscar's nonfiction category is the only area where kudos can actually lead to making the world a better place — which arguably makes it the Academy's most significant."
"Better this World" co-director Katie Galloway confirmed the sentiment. "What can compare to the Academy Awards as a platform for getting critical information out to a massive audience?" she told me. "To put the issues 'Better This World' grapples with — the often unjust nature of the justice system, the enormous growth of policing and surveillance and its consequences for American ideals like the right to protest — in front of an Academy audience is a dream. Because we want to tell great stories," she added, "but we also want to wake people up."
Oscar's shortlist of the best documentaries of the last 16 months will be announced in the next week or so.