For moviegoers and filmmakers alike, excitement is building for the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26. In anticipation of the award ceremony, MFA Social Documentary Film Department Chair Maro Chermayeff and faculty members Ann Collins and Tom Hurwitz shared their thoughts with the Briefs about which of the five nominated films should win the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
The documentaries up for consideration this year are: Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner; If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman; Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; Pina by Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel; and Undefeated by TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Rich Middlemas.
Ann Collins, film editor (films include: Sound and Fury, The Charcoal People): As for my personal favorite this year, I would have to go with Pina. As a faculty member in the MFA Social Documentary Film Department, I’m lucky to be part of a think-tank of students and working professionals who are constantly striving to carry the genre beyond its known limits and to explore everything a documentary can be, while still holding firm to the basic principles of character and story that are so vital in creating compelling work. I think the ways in which Wim Wenders’s passion for his character led him to seek out new paths of working as a filmmaker—requiring him to rethink his own process and to adapt his subject’s technique to his own method—and his courageous exploration of 3D as a viable medium for documentary stand alone as reasons why the film should get an Oscar. Factor in the luscious images and exquisite use of sound and I think we are looking at a film that stands on the vanguard of filmmaking in any category, making it a perfect choice for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Tom Hurwitz, director of photography (films include: Valentino: The Last Emperor, Dancing Across Borders): For me, there were two standouts in the field for Best Documentary Feature, Hell and Back Again and Pina. Both were well made films, both very compelling, with different styles and about completely different subjects. I have shot several films about both war and dance (in fact, films of mine on each of these subjects were previously nominated for Oscars) and I appreciate both works. Although I was at Sundance when the mandatory screenings were held, so I couldn’t vote in that category, I would have chosen Pina. The dance photography in the film is so new and so excellent that it brings the entire film into a different range of experience from other dance films, and indeed most other documentaries. It makes viewing the dances of this amazing choreographer even more intense than in a theater. Wim Wenders and his crew did really ground-breaking work.
Maro Chermayeff, producer and director (films include: Mann v. Ford, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present): Predicting the Academy Awards given out for documentary over the years has been rough terrain to navigate, and the route to achieve eligibility requirements quite treacherous for independent filmmakers. Subject matter and timing can mean everything, and often wonderful films simply do not move the dial for the limited number of Academy members who actually screen and vote in this category. Throughout the history of the awards there have been glaring omissions and historical victories. For 2012 I predict the Oscar will go to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky—the third installment in the story of the 1993 West Memphis, Arkansas murders of three little boys. While in my view, this film is not the best of the three films in the trilogy, as it is the most conventional and the least emotionally effective and urgent, I believe the Academy will acknowledge the body of work and award this film, in a sense awarding the series and the filmmakers as a whole.
As Chair of the MFA Social Documentary Film Department, I find the many issues brought up in these films—the style, the approach, the ethics and the point of view of the filmmakers—in themselves are highly interesting subject matter, worthy of a case study. The effect that the films and the filmmakers have had on the case itself, the response of the community and the focus of the public’s eyes upon the case shifted due to the filmmaking process. Taking all of these realities into consideration, I think the 18 years of focus on this subject matter reveals in both the subjects and filmmakers a level of dedication and obsession that makes this more than simply a documentary, but rather a socially relevant dialogue about documentary, point of view, character, story, the flawed legal system and the definition of justice.
Top image: still from Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011.