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Mitchell Block Dead: Oscar-Nominated Documentarian Was 73

Mitchell Block Dead: Oscar-Nominated Documentarian Was 73

Mitchell Block, the executive and Oscar-nominated documentarian who was behind such powerful films as Poster Girl, Big Mama and The Testimony, has died. He was 73.

Block died Thursday night of natural causes at his home in Eugene, Oregon, his daughter, Anja Block, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Block was a consultant for Sheila Nevins at HBO for about a decade, and he received his Oscar nom (shared with director Sara Nesson) for producing the network’s Poster Girl (2010). The 38-minute film follows the struggles of Robynn Murray, who battled PTSD after returning from the Iraq War.

Earlier, he was an executive producer on the Oscar-winning short documentary Big Mama (2000), about Viola Dees, an 89-year-old woman fighting to retain custody of her rebellious grandson, Walter.

Two other short documentaries he worked on, The Testimony (2015), about the largest rape trial in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Women of the Gulag (2018), revolving around survivors of Soviet labor camps, were shortlisted for Academy Awards.

Starting in 1980, Block served for many years on the Academy’s documentary screening committee, which selects the docs that are shortlisted for Oscars.

In February 1990, a group of 45 filmmakers filed a protest with the Academy after Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, a critical and commercial hit, did not receive a documentary nom. They saw a conflict of interest in that three of the films that did get a nom were distributed by Block’s Direct Cinema Ltd. (The eventual winner, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, was distributed by Direct Cinema.)

Block denied any conflict of interest, telling The New York Times that he filed a conflict-of-interest statement with the Academy every year. “I am not allowed to vote for or attend the screening or participate in any discussion of any film that I have a conflict of interest in,” he said.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Block graduated from the Hun School of Princeton in 1968, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

While at NYU, he wrote, directed and produced … No Lies (1973), a 16-minute cinéma verité-style film about a rape and its aftermath that was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2008. (In 2016, critics polled by IndieWire named it one of the 10 best short films ever made.)

He launched Direct Cinema in 1974, and films released by the company have collected 25 Oscars from 76 nominations.

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Block also co-created and executive produced Carrier, set on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, and its one-hour companion piece, Another Day in Paradise. Both aired in 2008 on PBS.

His résumé included 2008’s Stealing America: Vote by Vote, 2014’s South by Southwest double winner Vessel, 2018’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, 2021’s Surviving Sex Trafficking and 2023’s My People.

He was a consulting producer on the insightful TCM docuseries The Power of Film, which aired this year.

Block spoke at more than 50 colleges and universities worldwide; lectured in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities in China; taught classes in independent film production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts from 1979-2017; and was a professor of documentary and film studies at the University of Oregon at the time of his death.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his son, Pieter. His wife, Joan, died in 2020.

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