Hollywood’s biggest night was not, sadly, documentary film’s finest hour. The 2010 Oscar ceremony will be most remembered for how The Hurt Locker trumped Avatar, and how Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director award. But, for documentary fans, it may be remembered for a couple of missed opportunities.

Things certainly didn’t start well for me, as my cable provider, Cablevision, is at war with ABC. This battle blocked the telecast for the first 15 minutes — we were tuned in just as the first award was being presented. That was a stark reminder that this show is, of course, all about money. But once the awards started rolling, I was pleased to see that I had correctly predicted the doc winners — Music by Prudence in the Short category, and The Cove in the Feature category.

A billion people watching you on a live telecast: it’s an artist or activist’s dream. Alas, both speeches were disasters. First, when Music by Prudence director Roger Ross Williams was in the middle of his speech, his producer Elinor Burkett cut in, saying, “Let a woman speak,” before she reeled off an inarticulate ramble. The two looked so incompatible and bizarre together, it left folks scratching their heads. Fortunately, Salon got the scoop, which is that the two filmmakers really have been at war over the film, and they no longer speak to each other. The brunt of the disagreement appears to have been over credit and creative control. Surprise, surprise… The filmmakers had not discussed how they would handle the awards speech and it showed. It was awkward, to say the least, and many on the Internet think of Burkett as having “Kanyed” the moment — which is to say, made an ass of herself.

When The Cove won, producer Fisher Stevens looked truly overjoyed, which was nice. But then he made a rather ineffective and uninteresting speech before dolphin-rights activist Ric Barry flashed a “Text ‘dolphin’ to 4144” sign, and ABC turned off the mic. The result? Director Louie Psihoyos never got to speak, and incredibly, the word “dolphin” was never even uttered. What a missed opportunity! Shame on ABC for cutting the shot and the mic, but these guys bungled this so badly. I read on the New York Times blog and elsewhere how Psihoyos was prepared to deliver a statement to really capitalize on the moment and help end the dolphin slaughter. What exactly went wrong — maybe Barry pulled the sign out too early — I don’t know.

Ah, the way of a documentary filmmaker is not an easy one. The spoils are few. The spoilers are many. And the stakes can be so high: it’s much more attractive to tear up and say, “You like me, you really like me,” than it is to say, “Make this world a better place.”

I may be wrong, but I think I saw Daniel Ellsberg, the subject of POV’s The Most Dangerous Man in America, in the audience, heartily applauding The Cove’s win. A class act like that — one who can fight for justice and keep the cameras from turning away — is hard to come by. Too bad he didn’t get his moment at the podium, to show these “winners” how to win well.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen