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What Makes an Oscar-Winning Documentary?

Photo by steepways CC BY-SA 2.0

Nothing looks better on your CV than a Oscar or BAFTA-winning credit, but that’s an impossible dream, right? Not necessarily if you do a bit of canny trend-watching and forward planning to make sure you make a documentary with a subject that is guaranteed to catch the Academy’s eye. As  the annual Oscars ceremony is here, now seems like a good time to explore previous winners to see what the trends are before you set out with your camera.

This year the following documentaries are up for Best Documentary Feature:

The Cove – An story of animal rights activists trying to expose needless dolphin slaughter in a small cove in Japan, told as a heist caper.

Burma VJ – Tells the story of journalists who film events inside the repressive regime and smuggle their tapes out of the country to foreign news journalists .

Food, Inc. – An expose of how all-powerful corporations control the quality of food in America.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers – How Daniel Ellsberg leaked Pentagon papers to the press, and revealed a secret government policy on Vietnam.

Which Way Home – Follows two boys, Kevin and Fito, who travel atop freight trains in an attempt to reach a better life in the USA.

My money is on The Cove. There are more predictions on the Oscar’s Competition here, which reads like a Who’s Who of UK film critics and entertainment bloggers.

[UPDATE: And the winner is… The Cove)

Sometimes looking back over a number of years can reveal evolving themes, so here are all the Documentary Feature Oscar winners from the last twenty years (visit Wikipedia for a list of winners going back to 1942).

So if you were choosing your documentary subject purely on the basis that it might win you a shiny statue, it looks as though you’d need to make a documentary film about war (or its aftermath). However, we seem to be in a period of transition where films about the environment are beginning to punch through. Films about children also have a good track record historically. So that bodes well for The Cove, Which Way Home and The Most Dangerous Man in America...Watch this space. And think twice about making a documentary about English cricket if you covet that Oscar statuette.

[UPDATE: As The Cove won the Oscar, the smart money might be on making environmentally-conscious feature documentaries over the next few years if you want to snag an Oscar.]


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