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What makes an Oscar winning documentary?

20 feet from stardom documentary oscar winner 2014On Monday morning, the world was awash with eager commentary about the gowns, gaffs and of course the award-winners of the 2014 Academy Awards. While most of the attention focussed on the fiction films (and poor old Leo DiCaprio), we here at Docgeeks were of course much more interested in who won in the competition for best feature documentary.

This year there was a heavyweight selection of political films competing for the feature-length prize, including The Square’s take on the revolution in Egypt, the cradle of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’; Dirty Wars, a timely and shocking revelation of the impact of America’s drone strikes and, of course, Joshua Oppenheimer’s controversial epic, The Act of Killing.

Then there was the token ‘art’ documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, which absolutely deserved its place in the line-up for its bittersweet documentation of the lives of two ageing Japanese-American artists.

All these films had done the rounds in Europe, the one relative unknown was a film about backing singers, 20 Feet from Stardom. Indeed, it had fallen so much under my personal doc-radar that when I read through the list of Oscar winners earlier this week I was completely perplexed, having not even recognised that this film has even been nominated. Clearly I was wrong in thinking that Blackfish got a shortlist nomination!?

So, 20 Feet from Stardom is our feature documentary Oscar winner. Hmm. For the second year in a row, we see a music-based doc win the golden ticket – or golden statue should we say.

This left me bewildered quite frankly. Why has a film that has barely made a critical ripple internationally (certainly compared to the films stacked up against it) picked up this prestigious gong? Surely this was the year for a hard-hitting film with a political message behind it to win out?


Time magazine predicted the winner before it was called, and suggested that money might have something to do with it. See, despite my ignorance, the film has clocked up sales of $4.9m in the US, surpassing last year’s winner (Sugar Man managed to reap in a comparatively meagre $3.7m).

So… is money the new decider for the Oscar doc winner? Let’s hope not. I prefer to think it is the drive to give the public an inspirational tale that sounds good to the ear and sits easy on the conscience. Next year’s results will proof if this theory holds up.


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Emma's passion for documentary film developed whilst studying History and Politics at Warwick University. After interning for the BBC's international documentary strand 'Storyville' she became intent on working in the documentary film-making industry and now works for a London-based independent production company [Spirit Level Film]. Emma is one of the only documentary-lovers around that thinks Errol Morris' films are boring.

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