OSCARWATCH 2012: Documentary Features

Yet another category of the Oscars that rarely gets the attention it deserves? Best Documentary Feature. The filmmakers who create these pieces go to extreme lengths for their work, and often do so with the admirable intention of bringing a greater message and awareness to their audience. This year’s crop of contestants are all powerful and captivating, and range widely in subject matter. From the conflict in Afghanistan to the life and legacy of a legendary choreographer, these films expose us to real aspects of our world we might never know otherwise. Below are the trailers for the gripping, real life films that caught the Academy’s attention this year, as well as summaries of their subjects and intentions.

Hell and Back Again, is the product of Danfung Dennis’s time spent within the US marines corps. A photojournalist/filmmaker by trade, Dennis was inspired to create this film after experiencing the way that 25 year old sergeant Nathan Harris saw his entire life change after taking a bullet during an attack on the unit in which Dennis was implanted. In an effort to portray the effects of war, both on the battlefield and in the homeland, Dennis interweaves footage of Harris’ attempt to return to normal life back in North Carolina with stirring scenes of combat. We experience Harris’ pain, physical and emotional, in an intimate portrait of life on the front lines, and what happens after you cross them. In the words of the director: “Unless you have a personal connection, the war in Afghanistan is an abstraction….through my work I hope to shake people from their indifference to war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home.”


If a Tree Falls, A Story of the Earth Liberation Front takes us on an in-depth investigation of a group once labeled by the FBI as the “number one domestic terrorism threat” to the U.S. The Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, is a group of activists who take a proactive stance against companies and business that they believe harm the environment. These stands often come in the form of arson, and the ELF has taken down businesses like timber companies and SUV dealerships in the name of the environment. Though they do not operate on a largely organized basis, the ELF is run through different cells, who cooperate in their acts of vengence. This documentary highlights the time between 1995 and 2001, when the ELF was at the height of its activism. In 2005, a leader of one of the major cells, Daniel McGowan, was taken into custody, effectively halting the operations of his unit. Filmmakers Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman present us with in depth interviews with McGowan, as well as federal agency members and detectives who sought to bring him down, all acting to paint a portrait of this mysterious vigilante group and its controversial practices.


Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the portrayal of an ongoing story ripped straight from summer headlines. The third installment in a series from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy, Purgatory covers the most recent developments in the case of the “West Memphis Three”. Their story dates back to May 1993, when the mutilated bodies of three young boys were discovered by a creek in West Memphis. Based on what many have called biased evidence, three teenagers were arrested for the murders: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley. Although convicted of the crimes, Berlinger and Sinofsky have brought to light ways in which the trial and evidence used to determine the boy’s guilt were unfair or inaccurate. The newest documentary in the series presents brand new interviews with the West Memphis Three, as well as those close to the victims of the heinous crime. The men were freed from jail this past summer, on the conditions of a very special legal agreement, in which they legally admit to guilt but publicly maintain their innocence. Though technically the third in the series, the filmmakers took great care that the Pugatory documentary could appeal to both those familiar with the trial and those to whom the subject matter was new. Said Berlinger, “We tried to make the film a self-sufficient viewing experience, so that you don’t have to have seen the previous films to fully comprehend this complicated case.” This topical climax to a long and harrowing tale is favored by many to walk away with the Oscar statue.


Pina, is unique among the documentary features here in that it attempts to chronicle a single life, rather than a broader event or topic. The film, helmed by Wim Wenders, who is also responsible for feature films like Paris, Texas and The Buena Vista Social Club, documents the life of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch. The documentary has been several years in the making, with footage of Pina at work dating back to 2007, preceding the choreographer’s untimely death in 2009, which occurred two days before the documentary’s main filming was due to begin. 3-D technology here allows the film the true breadth of technology it needs to capture the expressive dancing style Pina and her dancers practiced. The technology is used to great effect in the documentary, with the Washington Post praising the fact that it “doesn’t just pump up the drama but creates a kind of emotional swoon, a whirling, sensory merry-go-round”. This documentary reads as much as a tribute to the memory and legacy of a true artist as it does as a time capsule of Pina’s work.


Undefeated tells the true underdog story of a high school football team’s struggle to reverse their losing record, a dream that comes true under the watch of Coach Bill Courtney. The Manassass Tigers, housed in North Memphis, were in such dire financial and educational straits that they had never even made it to a playoff game since their school’s founding in 1899. But, after the entrance of Coach Courtney, who aims his efforts at not building, but revealing, the team’s character, the Tigers finally saw their way to a winning season. Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were on hand to document the team’s attempts to turn their fortunes around, and to witness the techniques of a coach who led a team facing obstacles like extreme poverty and lack of confidence to unprecedented success. As USA Today describes it, “A documentary hybrid of Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side, Undefeated tracks Courtney as he draws up as many life lessons as he does defensive schemes for the athletes.”