When Jerry Seinfeld came out to present the Best Documentary Award at last month's Oscar telecast, I turned to the person next to me (who was a total stranger) and said "Seinfeld presenting an Oscar? Who's next? Ray Romano?" And then the comic kicked in with a real tired old piece of comedy schtick about the litter you often find in movie theaters. (I guess by now he's run out of jokes about airplane food.) Anyway, the guy was a silly choice to be an Oscar presenter -- and now one of the Oscar-nominated documentarians has decided to speak up for another reason.

Iraq in Fragments
producer John Sinno is more than a little unhappy -- justifiably so if you ask me -- and he's not being shy about his displeasure. I'll post the full letter (entitled "An Open Letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences") after the jump, but here's the gist of his umbrage: Seinfeld was pretty damn disrespectful of the documentary genre while cracking jokes for a billion-plus audience. Mr. Sinno is particularly unhappy with the ignorant and dismissive way in which the Oscar-nominated documentaries were described as "incredibly depressing!" (I was particularly unhappy about the really obvious humor from a guy who really ought to have some good new material by this point. Wow, docos about war are "depressing!" You go, Seinfeld, that's some insight!)

Sinno's got a point: If ever there were ever opportunity to educate and elucidate a large audience as to the importance of documentary films, it would be during the annual Oscar broadcast. Yet Seinfeld (who appeared in one half-decent documentary that probably had ten times the budget of Iraq in Fragments) took the stage and basically reinforced all the lamest stereotypes out there. I mean, would it be so hard to find presenters (and joke writers) who actually know a little bit about film? Or is it preferable to simply roll out a disinterested billionaire and let him "humorously" spew a bunch of short-sighted fallacies? (Oh, but if they chose a different presenter we might have missed all that hilarious stuff about movie theater litter!) Well, we now know where John Sinno stands; his letter to the Academy is included below.
An open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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
categories Awards, Cinematical