Gore's Film an Oscar Favorite but Violates Academy Standards, Critics Say

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT


(CNSNews.com) - Al Gore's movie on climate change is likely to win an Oscar for best documentary on Sunday even though it arguably violates the Academy's own criteria and should be disqualified, critics say.

But, they argue, the way in which the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has handled the issue in the past shows a clear political bias.

Documentaries that distort reality and shade the truth are insulated from criticism so long as they advance left-wing causes like global warming and gun control, said independent filmmaker Dan Gifford, a former Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner.

According to the "rule 12" standard for documentary films established by the Academy, while it is permissible to employ storytelling devices such as re-enactments, stock footage, stills and animations, the emphasis must be on fact and not fiction.

The critics argue that in the case of "An Inconvenient Truth," the criteria are not met.

One point of contention in Gore's movie is animated footage of a polar bear struggling to find stable sea ice. Gore has argued that human-induced global warming is directly impacting polar bears' habitat and sea ice in particular. Consequently, he suggests, polar bears are forced to swim longer distances and sometimes drown in the process.

"A new scientific study shows that for the first time they're finding polar bears that have actually drowned swimming long distances - up to sixty miles - to find the ice," Gore says in the movie.

John Berlau, author of a new book on the environmental movement entitled "Eco-Freaks," claims the polar bear scene alone should disqualify Gore's film from consideration for best documentary, because it departs from reality.

Berlau noted that while the movie's companion book says the bears were drowning in "significant numbers," the study Gore is most likely referring to only found four polar bear carcasses in the sea off Alaska.

That episode took place after a severe storm, he noted, but Gore makes no reference to a storm during the film's animated polar bear sequence.

Gore also never cites a source for his polar bear claim, Berlau points out, but scientists on both sides of the polar bear debate told Cybercast News Service he was probably referring to a recent report filed by the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Researchers with the service in 2004 found four dead polar bears floating in the sea off Alaska but said in a report that the bears "are believed to have drowned as a result of the storm."

Berlau, an analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) - an organization known for global warming skepticism - who has also written about the entertainment industry, said the polar bear sequence does not square with a large body of scientific evidence.

"The polar bear cartoon was the emotional linchpin of this movie for a lot of people, but the science behind it was not rooted in truth and is a violation of rule 12 on many levels," Berlau told Cybercast News Service.

"If the context of this film were not something politically correct like global warming, it would not be considered for an award," he said.

Scientists and animal experts dispute whether polar bear populations are in decline, and if so, whether climate change is the main cause (see related story).

Gore "crosses a line" that takes his documentary from fact to fiction by flatly claiming polar bears are drowning, when in reality, there is no hard evidence to substantiate his claim, Berlau said.

In past years, the Academy has applied "very strong standards against the manipulation of animal scenes in film," Berlau said.

He cited as an example a 1958 Disney documentary "White Wilderness," which won an Oscar but was subsequently discredited. Film crew had apparently induced lemmings to jump off a cliff in an effort to highlight the species' suicidal behavior.

If those standards were still in effect, "An Inconvenient Truth" would be disqualified, Berlau said.

Other more recent examples involving storytelling techniques described in rule 12 include "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) about the shooting of a Dallas police officer, and "Touching the Void" (2005), a film about a near-fatal climb in the Peruvian Andes.

Both films received critical acclaim but, Berlau said, ultimately fell short of serious Oscar contention because the Academy took issue with the use of re-enactments.

'Gore's the contrarian'

Another area in the movie that has raised eyebrows is Gore's suggestion that climate change could lead to a 20-foot sea level rise, jeopardizing coastal areas of the U.S., including Florida and Manhattan.

The film shows computer-generated images of water flowing into New York City and covering the area where the World Trade Center once stood, as Gore draws a link between global warming and 9/11.

"Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists?" he asks. "Maybe we should be concerned about other problems as well."

But climate experts who have spoken with Cybercast News Service scoff at the "alarmist" claim.

Even the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), supposedly the basis of scientific "consensus" on the issue, does not project sea rise levels anywhere near 20 feet.

Instead, the IPCC predicts a sea level rise by the end of the 21st century of between 0.3 feet and 2.8 feet with a "central value" of 1.5 feet.

Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, told Cybercast News Service the IPCC estimates avoid the more alarmist positions and are not far off the mark, according to his own estimates.

"I think Al Gore's out of the mainstream," Singer said. "He's a contrarian."

'Creative license is necessary'

Michael Shashoua, an entertainment journalist and member of the Gen Art Film Festival Screening Committee in New York City, said rule 12 is legitimate insofar as it encourages documentary makers to hue as close to reality as possible.

But the rule could also be interpreted in such a way that precludes effective films from receiving their due, he told Cybercast News Service.

"Sometimes it is necessary to be subjective when exploring a part of reality and to put your best interpretation on events," Shashoua said. "Rule 12 should not get in the way so long as the filmmaker is not playing fast and loose with the material. A little creative license is necessary, especially when actual footage is not available."

Gore's film passes muster in Shashoua's view, because the film is built around a college lecture, and it "doesn't stretch the truth to show Gore using devices in the same manner a professor might."

Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University in Washington D.C., also does not anticipate any complications for "An Inconvenient Truth" involving rule 12 or any other standards.

Since the thrust of the film is about "Al Gore's quest," Seavey said, there should be no contention as long as "nothing is fictionalized about Gore's quest."

'Rule is selectively enforced'

Nonetheless, Gifford, the filmmaker, sees a political agenda behind Gore's predicted success.

Even if material in Gore's film is "proven beyond a shadow of doubt to be untrue," the Academy will not invoke rule 12, because the subject matter is politically correct, Gifford told Cybercast News Service.

"The fact is the Academy doesn't care. The rule is selectively enforced depending on the politics," he said.

To back up his argument that ideology is a factor, Gifford pointed to Michael Moore's film "Bowling for Columbine," a 2003 Oscar winner for best documentary.

To promote the view that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was indifferent toward shooting victims, Moore "faked scenes" and created a false reality with footage including edited excerpts of speeches by then NRA president Charlton Heston, Gifford charged.

David Hardy, an Arizona attorney and author, has written in depth about the issue of whether Moore's movie met the definition of a documentary.

Shortly after Moore won the award, Gifford wrote a letter to the Academy urging a probe into the film's eligibility.

"Should that investigation determine that 'Bowling for Columbine' contains, as claimed, fabricated scenes and video of real people that has been edited to manufacture a fictional reality intended to mislead viewers, then the director and producer of this film should be stripped of their award," he wrote in the letter to Academy executive director Bruce Davis.

"Failure to conduct such an investigation and act according to its findings will diminish the stature of the Oscar, establish an exploitable precedent for future rule violators and be grossly unfair to the other nominees who did follow the rules," Gifford wrote.

He confirmed Wednesday that he had received no response, written or verbal, from the Academy.

Gore's movie is likely to be given a free pass, Gifford said, because, like Moore, he has definite left-of-center point of view that resonates with the Academy.

Waco

Gifford has himself enjoyed success with documentaries, including an Oscar nomination - and an Emmy Award - for the 1997 film "Waco: The Rules of Engagement."

He co-produced and narrated the documentary, about the 1993 confrontation between the Branch Davidian sect and the FBI, which ended when the group's compound was consumed in flames, killing 81 people.

Gifford recalls that the documentary came under fire. Since President Clinton was in office at the time, entertainment industry liberals were inclined to defend the government's position, he said.

"We were in a place politically and culturally in the 1990s where you were labeled as a right-wing nut to even suggest the government's official story was untrue," Gifford said.

"The same ones now saying you can't trust your government and you can't trust what they're saying about Iraq are ones who said it was disloyal and unpatriotic to say you can't trust your government back in the 1990s," he added.

Gifford said the Waco documentary withstood the criticism because actual footage was used and compelling evidence introduced.

The office of Laurie David, producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," declined an invitation to comment, instead referring queries to Paramount Pictures.

Repeated phone calls to Megan Colligan, executive vice-president of publicity for Paramount Vantage, were not returned. Paramount Vantage is the specialty film division of Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures.

Cybercast News Service also contacted Teni Melidonian at the Academy's public relations department. She indicated that Academy executives were unlikely to comment but did ask for a copy of the story to be emailed to her, to pass on to the appropriate officials. No Academy comment was received.

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