Essay: The Documentary Oscar Shortlist, Or: The ‘Persecution’ of Dinesh D’Souza

Sections: Academy Award, Award Shows, Movies

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There’s a story this week that combines two staples of annual award-season controversy: The frequent screwups of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar category, and complaints by conservatives that they’re not given proper award recognition.

The Academy last week released its short list of 15 films under consideration for the Best Documentary Oscar. As usual, several of the year’s most deserving documentaries- starting with “The Queen of Versailles,” “The Central Park Five” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”- were left off, while Lee Hirsch’s abominable “Bully” made it on. It seems no matter how many times they change the rules, the documentary category just never gets it right.

But another film was left off the list, which was in fact the year’s highest-grossing documentary:  “2016: Obama’s America,” conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s examination of the president’s past and background. Nevermind that the film has a 27 percent Tomatometer store, has had its accuracy significantly questioned, and failed in its clear goal of contributing to the president’s defeat. The director falling into an embarrassing sex scandal didn’t help much either. 

But even more ridiculous was D’Souza’s reaction to the snub, according to the Hollywood Reporter: 

“By ignoring 2016, the top-performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like “Searching for Sugar Man” and “This Is Not a Film” are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards.”

Ah, “This is Not a Film.” In case you’re not familiar with that film, or what it’s about…: 


This clandestine documentary, shot partially on an iPhone and smuggled into France in a cake for a last-minute submission to Cannes, depicts the day-to-day life of acclaimed director Jafar Panahi (Offside, The Circle) during his house arrest in his Tehran apartment. While appealing his sentence – six years in prison and a 20 year ban from filmmaking – Panahi is seen talking to his family and lawyer on the phone, discussing his plight with Mirtahmasb and reflecting on the meaning of the art of filmmaking.


I haven’t had a chance to see “This is Not a Film.” But I have seen Panahi’s “Offside,” which was filmed, also clandestinely, as a group of young girls snuck into a soccer match from which women were forbidden. But hey, putting his movie on the Oscar shortlist is just proof of Hollywood’s liberal perfidy, right, Dinesh?

In fact, there’s a huge community of filmmakers in Iran, nearly all of whom are opponents of the regime and have been censored to various degrees. 

There was a similar controversy last year, when certain conservatives on Twitter went nuts about the Iranian film “A Separation” winning the Foreign film Oscar, while an Israeli film, “Footnote,” was also nominated, as though the Academy had sided with the mullahs over the Israelis for political reasons. In fact, “A Separation” was a great film- Roger Ebert called it the best of 2011,  its director Asghar Farhadi also is an opponent of the regime, and it was a huge hit in Israel.

So in other words, filmmakers like those brave Iranians have actually suffered for their art, and are the rare artists who, in the 21st century, are actually risking their own life and freedom to get his movies made. Dinesh D’Souza made a movie that tells a bunch of dubious folk tales about the president of the United States, and the worst that’s happened is that he’s been criticized, and didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Will this grave injustice ever be adjudicated?

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