As has been clear for years now, documentaries struggle to get much Academy Awards recognition beyond the Best Documentary Feature category and occasionally the Best Original Song section. While the very nature of documentaries means they can never compete in the acting or even (usually) the screenplay categories, there are still plenty of other places at the Academy Awards that documentaries could score some much-deserved recognition. This includes the Best Editing category, a domain that, for a variety of reasons, documentaries should be crushing it in. Instead, as of this writing, only a handful of documentaries (like Hoop Dreams) have ever graced the category, a glaring shortcoming that comes down to a multitude of factors.
Documentary Storytelling Relies Heavily on the Art of Editing
Editing is one of many facets of filmmaking that we all (myself included) can take for granted. We’re all so used to the process of one shot leading into another in conventional cinema that it can be difficult to remember what intricate skills and artistry it takes to pull off the best kind of editing. It’s only when seeing some truly astonishingly bad editing, like the cuts in some of the most infamous scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, do we realize how much craft goes into this field. Editing for documentaries is no different, with precise and thoughtful work in this field being a requirement for any feature in this medium to reach its fullest potential.
Documentaries are especially important when it comes to editing because of how many different types of videos and images these films can employ. You might be cutting back and forth between present-day interview segments and vintage family photographs, for instance, or you’re slipping between archival footage of wildly different eras of the past. Juggling all that material is crucial to making the respective scopes of individual documentaries as expansive as can be, but it also requires sublime editing to ensure all the different aesthetic and materials work together in harmony.
A wide array of iconic editors live and breathe the world of documentaries (though by no means are documentary editors forced to work only in this field) and would imagine their work would be a slam-dunk to get recognized at any average Academy Awards ceremony. Alas, the norm across the nearly 100 years of the Academy Awards existing has been to ignore the editing in documentaries in favor of making the Best Editing field exclusively a domain to heap praise on narrative features. Unfortunately, this norm ties into an especially big issue ensuring that docs are so often excluded from Best Editing: the presence of larger non-documentary titles.
Why Documentaries Are So Often Excluded from Best Editing?
A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, and the same can be said for what films manage to sneak into so many categories during a single Academy Awards ceremony. Since the Best Picture field has only ever been comprised of narrative features, these are the titles that gain all kinds of unstoppable momentum during award season. When a title like The Social Network or Bohemian Rhapsody begins to take off with voters, it’s inevitable its influence will spread to as many categories as possible. The impact of documentaries being excluded from major categories like Best Picture and Best Director means that they rarely get the kind of momentum necessary to score Best Editing nominations.
There’s also the factor of what kind of narrative movies tend to win the Best Editing Oscar, namely big flashy movies that are very pronounced in their cuts. Now, this doesn’t mean that only films that put all style over substance win this award, as seen by modern masterpieces like Whiplash or Mad Max: Fury Road taking home this award. However, the very specific editing style that worked so well for those movies intersected with the kind of showy editing that Oscar voters gravitate towards when picking out Best Editing nominees.
There are maximalist documentaries out there with rapid-fire discernible cuts, but many of the titles that get a lot of critical acclaim in a given year tend to be quieter in tone and less flashy in their editing. One of the greatest movies in 2022, documentary or otherwise, is All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and much of its power does come from the subtly masterful editing that gracefully takes viewers through so many sides of its central subject, photographer Nan Goldin. We travel through her letters, her photographs, footage of Goldin in the modern day, all without ever feeling like the feature is aimless or abrupt in its shift in focus. The film’s editors, Amy Foote, Joe Bini, and Brian A. Kates, all do incredible work that’s downright essential to making All the Beauty and the Bloodshed work as well as it does.
Alas, that kind of quiet editing, common in documentaries (which often deal with sensitive subjects that require a deft and delicate touch) is not regularly highlighted by the Oscars. Another great 2022 documentary, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, also demonstrates the sort of subtle editing that this ceremony won’t recognize. Editor Katharina Wartena is working only with three minutes of footage captured in the 1930s in this feature, the camera never cuts away from those period-era faces. The way her editing, cutting around various parts of this footage and even to deep close-ups of certain background figures, keeps viewers immersed in discovering new revelations hidden in the corners of this footage is remarkable. However, since the scope of the documentary is intimate, it’s doubtful it’ll stand a chance of leaving an impact on Oscar voters compared to, say, Top Gun: Maverick.
Can Documentaries Break Through into Best Editing This Year?
Bloodshed and Lengthening are just two of countless examples of the kind of superb editing that appeared in all kinds of documentaries throughout 2022. There are plenty of standout features in this medium for this year to warrant at least one documentary to break through into the Best Editing category at the Oscars, as past norm-shatterers like Hoop Dreams managed decades ago. At the moment, unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much indication that change is on the horizon, especially since the buzziest movies of 2022 are all narrative features. But constantly talking about the virtues of documentary cinema editing and highlighting the contributions of these editors is at least a step towards the Oscars more frequently correcting this oversight in the future. Editors are just as important in documentaries as they are in any other style of cinema storytelling and it’s time the Academy Awards more frequently recognized them as such.