Is impact the winning ingredient for film awards?

The gorgeous black-and-white scenery, the snuffling, rustling soundscape, the enchanting cast of farmyard characters – Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda is without question an artistic masterpiece. Loved by the critics and hotly tipped for stardom, it seemed to have all the ingredients for awards success. And yet, when the Oscar nominations came out last week, Gunda was nowhere to be seen.

Is impact now the vector between art and the ability to win awards?

Looking at the final list for the Oscar documentary nominations, it is clear that artistic merit isn’t enough alone anymore to win big. All the films that broke through the shortlist are impact stories: 

  • Collective is a blistering expose and takedown of Romanian medical corruption,

  • Time confronts the injustices of the American legal system,

  • Crip Camp shines a spotlight on decades of disability activism,

  • The Mole Agent hits the Covid-19 vibe as an aching meditation on isolation and loneliness, and

  • My Octopus Teacher implicitly teaches us about the interconnectedness of the natural world and our ability to protect it.

All the finalist films compel audiences to think differently and invoke focused responses and activism.

Perhaps the power of the pig didn’t stand out enough.

Gunda is incredibly unique. The absence of humans, narration, and emotional music score are striking creative choices that quietly lead audiences to reflect on the treatment of animals destined for human consumption, without casting blame or judgment. 

The film’s gentle beauty is precisely what enables audiences to connect emotionally, and leaves space for conversations that explore real-world contexts, bring in different perspectives and drive forward collective change. 

And yet, for the Academy committee, Gunda wasn’t in the top 5.

So the Oscars love IMPACT – then why isn’t impact awarded?

One concrete impact approach for Gunda could have been to lean into the reflective value of the film to illustrate how interconnected our global ecosystem is, and the vested interest we all have in improving animal welfare and antibiotic resistance – whether vegetarian, vegan or contentedly carnivorous.

Animal welfare within the agricultural sector urgently needs addressing. Staggering proportions of farm animals are crammed together in barren pens, crates, and cages. The use of antibiotics in animal feed as growth-promoters also appears to promote the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains, a public health concern hugely resonant in Covid-19 times. 

And yet, despite global public interest in animal welfare, feed quality and harmonisation of standards are not currently a priority in agriculture legislation. Action by platforms such as the EU Platform on Animal Welfare and UN Climate Change Conference 26 suggest that intergovernmental bodies are interested in positive changes but not actively seeking solutions. 

Gunda’s tenacity to raise her piglets gives us all pause for thought. What a targeted impact campaign could have done is transform that thought into determined action. 

Impact for Gunda could have promoted ethical farming, guiding audiences to purchase sustainable products.

It could have elevated national, regional, and international debates on farming, food, and climate policy, discussing solutions such welfare labelling and commitments to phasing out dangerous use of growth hormones and antibiotics in animal feed.

It could have shone a spotlight on the plethora of ‘meat-free’ and animal welfare resources and actions led by environmental groups and organisations, becoming the heart and face of a global collective movement towards more compassionate and sustainable food infrastructure.

A strategic socio-political impact campaign around Gunda could have acted as a pivotal catalyst for transformative change. 

Beautifully-made artistic products can be powerful tools to facilitate real, meaningful world outcomes. And a strategic socio-political impact approach for Gunda might also have made a persuasive statement to the Academy that it is more than “just” an artistic masterpiece, it has a message and an ability to shape society – a true impact Oscar contender.