Awards can play a big role in helping feature documentaries connect with audiences. Geoffrey Macnab explores the leading contenders for recognition this year.

This year may not have seen any huge breakouts at the global box office to rival hits such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or March Of The Penguins but it was clearer than ever in 2012 that feature documentary film-making remains vital and creative, and that awards play an increasingly important part in showcasing the best films.

“The Bafta and the Oscar have great significance,” says John Battsek of Passion Pictures, the UK outfit that together with Simon Chinn’s Red Box Films produced this year’s awards favourites The Imposter [pictured] and Searching For Sugar Man.

“[An award] is always going to have a beneficial effect on the fortunes of the film but if you’re lucky enough for it to come at a point where the film is still out there in the cinemas or is just coming out on DVD, it’s definitely a boost and can be a significant boost.”

This year’s crop of documentaries in contention for awards cover a huge sweep of subjects, film-making styles and geographical areas. One notable trend is the tendency for documentary film-makers to use dramatic devices more commonly associated with fictional films, as underlined by Bart Layton’s The Imposter. At the same time, polemical documentaries such as 5 Broken Cameras and The House I Live In are gaining traction in the theatrical marketplace, while film-makers remain as keen as ever to tell political and intimate family stories.

Whittled down from 126 submissions, the longlist of 15 films in contention for this year’s documentary Oscar includes an eco-doc about melting ice caps (Chasing Ice), a film about Bobby Kennedy’s widow (Ethel), docs on Israel’s war on terror (The Gatekeepers) and on the vexing question of Israeli settlements on Palestinian farmland (5 Broken Cameras), a film about a Chinese dissident artist (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), an exposé of abuse within the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God), a noirish thriller about a French man impersonating a missing US teenager (The Imposter) and a self-reflexive Iranian documentary about film-maker Jafar Panahi (This Is Not A Film).

The remaining titles are Lee Hirsch’s Bully, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, David France’s How To Survive A Plague, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man and Peter Nicks’ The Waiting Room.

Many of those films premiered at Sundance, an increasingly important platform for documentary since the World Cinema Documentary Competition was launched in 2005.

There are some notable omissions on the longlist. Neither Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, his exhaustive film about reggae superstar Bob Marley, nor Brett Morgen’s Crossfire Hurricane, an epic doc about The Rolling Stones produced by the band, were included. Other films overlooked included The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, West Of Memphis, directed by Amy J Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, and Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen Of Versailles. But despite these omissions, the list this year is seen by most as healthy and solid.

Oli Harbottle, head of distribution at UK documentary specialists Dogwoof, says these omissions are not as egregious as last year’s snubs such as Senna and The Interrupters. “It is a category that still seems to be finding its feet in the way the selection process is made. That is partly due to the fact it is one of the categories where they decide to have this mid-list. There are always going to be difficulties in getting it completely right.” Still, Harbottle says, it is a strong list that shows “the genre is really flourishing at the moment… in its tone and scope, it’s got it pretty much bang on”.

Israeli film-maker Guy Davidi, co-director and producer of 5 Broken Cameras, expresses some surprise that his film ended up on the Oscar list.

This was a small documentary about very contentious subject matter - the fight for land in the Middle East. Then again, documentary has long been a category for the underdog. Oscar winners over the last decade, such as Born Into Brothels, Taxi To The Dark Side, The Cove and Undefeated, all came more out of left field.

One of the fascinations of the documentary category is that there is not always the same consensus about the best films of the year. There are usually overlaps and differences between the Oscars and other awards.

“Here in Israel, there is a strong reaction. People are talking about it more. There is great media coverage,” Davidi says of the Oscar list.

“There were two films from Israel that were shortlisted [The Gatekeepers as well as 5 Broken Cameras] and that created a big discussion about the documentary scene in Israel.”

5 Broken Cameras premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2011 and went on to play at Sundance where it won the World Cinema Directing Award (it also won many other awards at festivals from Sheffield to Dublin).

The 2012 contenders also underline the importance of broadcasters in the feature documentary world. This year for example, US director Eugene Jarecki credits backing from the BBC’s Storyville strand for kick-starting The House I Live In, about the US war on drugs, while Bart Layton’s much feted The Imposter was supported by the UK’s Channel 4.

Awards recognition is a way of underlining a documentary’s theatrical credentials. “It enables us to shout about the film to a broader audience,” suggests Harbottle.

When it comes to awards, Battsek argues the Oscar and the Bafta “stand way ahead of everything else, and the Oscar stands above the Bafta”.

Bafta only re-introduced a documentary category to its film awards last year; the prize used to be given at Bafta’s TV awards. To the disgruntlement of many observers, only three nominees were shortlisted, with Asif Kapadia’s Senna taking the prize. However, Bafta’s decision this year to allow distributors to promote films to voters through online screenings has enabled these distributors to mount far more compelling, cost-effective campaigns.

“I feel Bafta acknowledging feature documentaries is long overdue,” says Battsek, who produced Kevin Macdonald’s 1999 Oscar-winning documentary One Day In September and has been making documentaries aimed at cinema audiences ever since.

But even winning an Oscar does not guarantee extra success. Alex Gibney was an Oscar winner with Taxi To The Dark Side in 2007 but later filed for arbitration, arguing distributor THINKFilm failed to capitalise on the Oscar success.

However, for distributors, the extra weight of an award nomination or win can help tip them into acquiring a documentary. UK documentary distributor Dogwoof picked up last year’s Oscar winner Undefeated, about a high school American football team in an underprivileged community, just as the film won its award.

Awards, Harbottle says, are used by audiences as “a filter to help them decide which of the documentaries they want to see”.