Documentaries: Introduction

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The first Academy Awards were handed out on May 16, 1929, not long after the advent of "talkies." By 1930, enthusiasm for the ceremonies was so great that a Los Angeles radio station did a live, one-hour broadcast, and the Awards have enjoyed broadcast coverage ever since. The number and types of awards have grown and changed over the years to keep up with the development of the motion picture industry. Awards of Merit—Oscars—are presented in each (or in subdivisions) of the following categories: acting, animation, art direction, cinematography, costume design, directing, documentary film, film editing, foreign language film, make-up, music, best picture, short film, sound, visual effects and writing. In an age when awards shows seem as common as nightly news programs, the Academy Awards are unique because the judges—the approximately 6,000 Academy members—are the top filmmakers from around the world. The question, "Who gets the Oscar?" is decided by a true jury of peers. The awards process provides a wonderful opportunity to teach your students about the many craft areas and the many communications techniques that play a part in creating a motion picture. Filmmaking is by nature a collaborative process, with each creative area supporting and being supported by the others. Because our space is limited, this kit focuses on documentary films.

Selecting Films For Student Viewing
Students may select the films they wish to view for the following activities, or you may wish to suggest films that are appropriate.

The following films have won Academy Awards for Documentary Feature, are available on DVD or VHS and may be suitable for your students: Prelude to War (1942), The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (1950), Kon-Tiki (1951), The Living Desert (1953), The Silent World (1956), The Anderson Platoon (1967), Woodstock (1970), The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), Scared Straight! (1978), He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983), The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), American Dream (1990), Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994), When We Were Kings (1996), Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001), and Born into Brothels (2004). Other features that have been nominated for Academy Awards for Documentary Feature include Four Days in November (1964), The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), Brooklyn Bridge (1981), Streetwise (1984), Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years/Bridge to Freedom 1965 (1987), The War Room (1993), Mandela (1996), Colors Straight Up (1997), 4 Little Girls (1997), Buena Vista Social Club (1999), LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), Spellbound (2002), Winged Migration (2002), Super Size Me (2004), and Tupac: Resurrection (2004).

The following films have won Academy Awards or have been nominated for Documentary Short Subject and may be of interest to your students. Although some are available on DVD or VHS through video stores and online outlets, many others are available only by contacting the filmmakers, who can be located through an Internet search: Close Harmony (1981), Sewing Woman (1983), Women—for America, for the World (1986), The Living Sea (1995), Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1997), Thoth (2001), Twin Towers (2002), Chernobyl Heart (2003), Ferry Tales (2003), and Hardwood (2004).

Several of the titles above and other documentary films on DVD or VHS can be rented or purchased at

For a complete list of Academy Award winners and nominees, check our Web site:


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