Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

February 15, 2012

Worlds Apart: Best Doc vs. Best Picture Nominees

by Ron Simon

Much has been written about the nostalgia that permeates the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Award. Certainly, seven of the nine features look backward into the 20th century, miles away from the digital complexity of contemporary life. As fiction directors contemplate such landscapes of silent film and sixties racism, the nominees for Best Feature Documentary present an entirely different worldview. Beyond their more up-to-date narratives, these doc filmmakers are using the technology in startling ways. (See most of the nominated docs at the NY Paley Center on Feb. 25 & 26.)

The documentary used to be the staid, proper aunt at the cinematic dinner party. The documentarians told their stories in an old-fashioned linear manner, without much frills or ostentation. Documentaries had a higher calling; moral urgency trumped stylistic innovation. This year, except for the wildly expressionistic Tree of Life, the best picture nominees tell straightforward, traditional stories with little formal innovation, not that much different from the Hollywood of old. On the other hand, the doc filmmakers are doing their best to explode their once restrictive heritage.

Just look at Danfung Dennis’s hallucinatory meditation on the Afghan war, Hell and Back Again. Dennis crafted a special camera to immerse the viewer in the battle experience. There was no need for subjects to describe the battlefield; you are thrown directly into the fire. Few fictional films have created such visceral and confusing sensations of combat.

But Dennis alternates this jarring war reportage with a painful portrait of a soldier featured in the footage, who now must adjust to civilian life after being severely wounded. Rehab is as hellish as the front line. By the end, Dennis’s lingering layered imagery elucidates the devastation of war abroad and at home.

With Pina, director Wim Wenders seizes the possibilities of 3-D to capture real life movement in the documentary. Never before had bodies in motion seemed so alive as the dancers of the late choreographer Pina Bausch jumped, crawled, and flailed across the screen. Even more exhilarating, was the haunting presence that Wenders endowed the human face at rest. Pina is a challenge to all filmmakers to think differently about movement and space, declaring that 3-D is creative tool in capturing reality.

Every filmmaker wants to change the world, but few actually achieve that grand ambition. After almost two decades of doggedly pursuing the facts in the tortured case of the West Memphis Three, directors Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are responsible for freeing innocent men. Their camera not only illuminated the dark corners of the Arkansas legal system, but galvanized support for three individuals sentenced to life with little physical evidence. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the final film of a  trilogy, is a testament to power of film to right wrongs. Here the filmmakers talk about their long and difficult odyssey in digging out the truth amid community prejudice.

The other two nominees artfully integrate traditional fictional techniques into the documentary narrative. Part thriller, part investigation, If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (pictured right) dramatically portrays the fortunes of the group through the transformations of its most idealistic member. With every character in the film, from FBI agent to eco-activist, presented fairly, the film is awash in multiple perspectives. Along the way, director Marshall Curry even-handedly encourages the viewer to ponder such weighty questions as what constitutes domestic terrorism today. Undefeated is Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side come to real life. With efficient storytelling, Undefeated chronicles the turnaround season of a beleaguered and impoverished high school in Memphis. More than an underdog sports tale, the film underlines the pivotal consequence of a mentor in a young man’s life.

The Paley Center in association with the International Documentary Association will be screening the documentary nominees (except Pina) the weekend of February 25 and 26. Many critics have complained about the lack of creativity and experimentation in current feature films. That is certainly not the case in the documentary genre.

  • i agree Eric that there were many fine documentaries, especially Werner Herzog's incredible Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Unfortunately, that film was not eligble for this year's awards. I thought the best film shortlisted that did not make the cut was Project Nim, by James Marsh (Man on a Wire). I also really liked Better This World, which received some critical prizes. Undefeated receiving the Oscar was a surprise. The documentary certainly told an inspiring story, very effectively.

    Ron, February 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  • I saw a lot of good documentaries this year and others could have been nominated too, including Tabloid, Bill Cunningham's New York, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, etc.

    Eric, February 26, 2012 at 7:02 am


Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio


Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.


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Ron Simon

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