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by Indiewire
March 2, 2007 10:22 AM
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FIRST PERSON | John Sinno: An open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

A scene from James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments."

[Editor's note: John Sinno is a producer of "Iraq in Fragments" by James Longley.]

I had the great fortune of attending the 79th Academy Awards following my nomination as producer for a film in the Best Documentary Feature category. At the Awards ceremony, most categories featured an introduction that glorified the filmmakers' craft and the role it plays for the film audience and industry. But when comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money. He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very "real" quality, while making a comically sour face. This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films "incredibly depressing!"

While I appreciate the role of humor in our lives, Jerry Seinfeld's remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind's reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries "incredibly depressing," he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they're nothing but downers. He wasted a wonderful opportunity to excite viewers about the nominated films and about the documentary genre in general.

To have a presenter introduce a category with such disrespect for the nominees and their work is counter to the principles the Academy was founded upon. To be nominated for an Academy Award is one of the highest honors our peers can give us, and to have the films dismissed in such an offhand fashion was deeply insulting. The Academy owes all documentary filmmakers an apology.

Seinfeld's introduction arrived on the heels of an announcement by the Academy that the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers' work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film, "Iraq in Fragments," would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision.

On a final note, I would like to point out that there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscar telecast, though it was on the minds of many in the theatre and of millions of viewers. It is wonderful to see the Academy support the protection of the environment. Unfortunately there is more than just one inconvenient truth in this world. Having mention of the Iraq War avoided altogether was a painful reminder for many of us that our country is living in a state of denial. As filmmakers, it is the greatest professional crime we can commit not to speak out with the truth. We owe it to the public.

I hope what I have said is taken to heart. It comes from my concern for the cinematic art and its crucial role in the times we're living in.


John Sinno
Academy Award Nominee, "Iraq In Fragments"
Co-Founder, Northwest Documentary Association

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8 Comments

  • cathleen rountree | March 16, 2007 4:50 AMReply

    Thank you for speaking up. the Seinfeld faux pas was one of the worst parts of the evening for me. A true disappoinment. However, the fact that no mentioned the Iraq war was positively scandalous. I agree with Betsy, how must our troops, who were watching the broadcast, have felt about this? Thank you for taking a stand and for addressing your concers to the Academy.

  • documentarydiva | March 5, 2007 9:06 AMReply

    Thank you John for writing this. As you can imagine, there has been a lot of discussion of this incident in the LA area documentary community. As someone who has worked with many documentary Academy Award nominees and winners, and with AMPAS itself, I would like to add a few thoughts.

    1. The omission of mention of the Iraq/Afganistan War was scandalous, especially considering that many of our troops were probably watching the show from those locations. How must they feel?

    2.
    A. The shifting of AMPAS rules is nothing new. As a private club, not a public or not for profit organization, they are entitled to change any rules about any thing that they choose. AMPAS is under no obligation, other than a moral one, to serve any particular part of the film community or the public. It also has no obligation to make any of its workings public.

    B. As one of the two founders-with Mitchell Block-- of the IDA InFAct Film Festival (formerly DOCtober) which we initiated to help documentarians qualify for consideration under the then new theatrical release rules, I have witnessed an ever-increaing "up-the-ante" of those rules. IDA HAS successfully helped many films qualify through this festival, and will, I am sure continue to do so. Each time the documentary community finds a way to meet the changing rules, AMPAS raises the bar higher. Some readers may recall that AMPAS tried to do away with the documentary categories altogether and also tried to move the awards off the television show. Only through the very strenuous efforts of IDA and others in the field were the two categories saved. An independent study commissioned by AMPAS as to the theatrical viability of documentaries proved that there was ample reason to keep the categories, and even to create the documentary Branch. Recall that the Branch only has existed for a few years and that a number of dedicated documentarians- Freida Mock, Michael Apted, and Arthur Dong , among others- have advocated within that Branch for the documentary at AMPAS.

    C. It is the producer of the show-in this case Laura Ziskin-who determines the order of the categories, the tone of the event, and the nature (if not the letter) of the script. The documentary awards were not the only ones surrounded by meaningless lead-ins. The fact that Jerry Seinfield gave the award to a friend is the way that Hollywood makes nice. It happens in ALL the categories. Would anyone complain that Marty Scorsese got the Award from Francis, George and Steven? Even Steven had a joke made at his expense. Seinfeld sells advertising. Advertising brings us the Oscars. People watch the documentary category to see Jerry Seinfeld. In the process they get exposed to documentaries. This is a good thing.

    D. AMPAS, as is its mandate, is interested only in theatrical releases of motion pictures, not television shows. Of course, many fiction feature films nominated for Oscars are on television very very soon, or released on DVD, after or during "Awards Season." AMPAS is particularly and somewhat unnaturally vigilant about mainting its theatrical qualifications in the documentary categories. Ask Michael Apted, a truly great documentarian, why he has never been nominated if you want to explore that issue further.

    3. All this having been said. I did not find Jerry Seinfeld's comments about "depressing" to be insulting. I have spent my career trying to get people to watch and talk about documentaries of all kinds-funny, depressing, musical, political, animated, serious, etc. I am one the most consistent advocates for documentaries in the world. When a joke is made at the expense of documentaries, unless it is racist, sexist, etc, I applaud that joke. I laughed, and I bet many other serious documenrians did too. Documentarians want audiences to see their films, and a bit of poking fun at the genre makes it that much more accessible for people. To become outraged at the joke only makes the genre and its practitiioners look pompously self-rightous. How many documentary jokes are there anyway?

    John, please know that I respect you and admire your film. It is obviously one of the most important works of the last year. I am very glad that you raise this issue. I write because, as one of the keepers of our documentary history, I think it always important to look at the economic and social context of events, along with the aesthetic and moral concerns. And in dealing with life and death subjects, the serious problems of our world, sometimes the only way I, even if I am alone in this, can deal with all the horror is to laugh. I think it is that which allows humans to survive.

    Betsy A. McLane at www.documentarydiva.com

  • epstein | March 5, 2007 8:06 AMReply

    I would respectfully suggest that you lighten up.

    Documentaries have grown in stature over the past few years specifically because the perception of our particular art form has changed from depressing to entertaining. Even Al Gore seems to have learned that lesson. He was able to put aside his dramatic concerns long enough to make people like him. Once they like him, they are more likely to listen to him, and he obviously recognized that the 79th Annual Academy Awards was not the proper venue for a sermon.

    We can continue to make documentaries and documentarians more accessible to the masses, or we can revert to the dark days when it was virtually impossible to make any money on a doc, because no one would go see them.

    I would also suggest that Mr. Seinfeld was the perfect person to introduce the documentary category. Humor has certainly played a large part the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and it will play an even bigger role in the resurgence of the documentary art form, unless we kill any momentum we have gained by demanding to be treated in somber and reverential tones.

    I say we embrace our depressing image as Cub fans have embraced their losing baseball teams. Show the potential audience that we can take a punch. Then the public may be more inclined to seek out our work. Only then will the movie-going public understand that documentaries can also be informative, entertaining, and even inspiring.

    Or, we can shoot ourselves in the collective foot by insisting on proper protocol. If that happens, we will ensure that every awards show include even more reasons for the viewers at home to take a break during our categories. I can almost hear them, �It�s safe to go to the bathroom now Honey, the documentary categories are on.�

  • girlsonfilm | March 5, 2007 7:45 AMReply

    Well said. Thanks for writing (and for making an amazing film).

  • girlsonfilm | March 5, 2007 7:45 AMReply

    Well said. Thanks for writing (and making an amazing film).

  • floval | March 5, 2007 5:30 AMReply

    I could not agree more.
    The omition about the war in Iraq was what was 'incredibly depressing' and revealing.
    Thank you for writing this and for making an important and beautiful film.

  • mindusq | March 5, 2007 4:28 AMReply

    Plus? Who cares about Jerry Seinfeld? He was "miscast" at the very least. Although I *did* laugh, in spite of myself, I heartily concur with your sentiments, John. I work at BAVC in SF and have watched over the years how difficult it is for doc makers to get their projects finished and onto the screen. Thanks for sharing your letter. Curious if you will get a response.

  • barithegirl | March 3, 2007 2:08 AMReply

    Thank you, John. This was in terrible taste, especially since when it comes right down to it, Seinfeld was put up there to give the award to Larry David's wife.