Entertainment & Arts

15 shortlisted documentaries speak truth to power

As often happens with documentaries and the Oscars, the world’s zeitgeist (of tenacious individual power doing battle with various corporate, governmental and other Goliaths) has found its way onto the 2012 shortlist. This year, many of the films unspool David stories that show the strength of a single person or group to effect real change against powerful odds. Here’s a quick look at the 15 shortlisted films for feature documentary:

“Battle for Brooklyn” — directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley

We see a rabble-rousing passionate and public fight against the building of the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where a small group of residents put up massive resistance. David doesn’t beat Goliath here but wears him out well in the seven-year process.

“Bill Cunningham New York” — director Richard Press


A delightful, upbeat film about the iconoclastic Bill Cunningham, the New York Times fashion photographer who, with his camera and bicycle and French street-sweeper jackets, has chronicled the stylized streets and social life of New York City for many decades. Cunningham, now in his 80s, lets us in on a life obsessively focused on documenting what is individual and unique in the city he most loves.

“Buck” — director Cindy Meehl

A film about a man made gentle by the violence he survived in childhood as well as the cruelty he sees in “breaking” horses. We travel with Buck Brannaman as he roams the country with his loving brand of calming and taming horses, showing how understanding and respect — be it to a horse or a child — always trumps coercion and exploitation.

“Project Nim” — director James Marsh


The tale of Nim Chimpsky, a baby chimpanzee who in the early 1970s was taken from his mother to be placed with a human surrogate in the hopes that raising the ape as a human and teaching him sign-language would break the communication barrier between species. Instead, the chimp was sent to an animal testing lab and then to a Texas sanctuary, where he died of a heart attack at age 26.

“Sing Your Song” — director Susanne Rostock

At 84, Harry Belafonte’s life has spanned segregation, the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement and countless other struggles against oppression. The film is woven from hundreds of hours of interviews, movie clips, FBI files and unseen archival footage to show the world how a tenacious individual can use his celebrity for the freedom of others.

“We Were Here” — director David Weissman and Bill Weber


With much skill, the director reminds us of the avalanche of death and fear that noosed the San Francisco gay community during the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In this rich portrait of a frightening time, five surviving community members weave their stories with those of friends no longer here.

“Pina” — director Wim Wenders

“Pina” is Wenders’ beautiful 3-D love-letter to German dance choreographer Pina Bausch, whose company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, and her brand of dance theater had tremendous influence on modern dance. “Pina” is also up for foreign-language film.

“Long Way Home: The Loving Story” — director Nancy Buirski


In 1958, two people wanted to marry in their home state of Virginia, but miscegenation laws made it illegal. Married in Washington, D.C., Richard and Mildred Loving were forced to leave Virginia but took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in their favor.

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” — directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

This provocative last installment of the “Paradise Lost” HBO trilogy showcases the release of three young Southern men imprisoned in one of the most notorious child murder cases in U.S. history. The series was shot over 20 years, and this film’s ending had a coda installed when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — known as the “West Memphis Three” — were surprisingly released from prison in August.

“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” — director Marshall Curry and co-director Sam Cullman


Daniel McGowan is under house arrest in much of this insightful film, as we learn how he changed from a Queens, N.Y., boy-next-door to a member of the Earth Liberation Front, responsible for several acts of arson.

“Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” — director Martyn Burke

A gripping look at the human price of reporting on war (nearly 1,400 news personnel were killed in more than 150 countries from 1996 to 2006) to the comfortable regions of the world, who often wish to ignore it.

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” — directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon


Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger discovers that his beloved Marine Corps covered up one of the largest water contamination incidents in U.S. history and connects that to his young daughter’s death from a rare type of leukemia. Ensminger, along with other affected former Marines, led a 12-year quest for some well-earned justice.

“Undefeated” — directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin

An inspirational underdog high school football documentary about a year in the life of the Manassas Tigers, a perennially losing Memphis, Tenn., team that finds itself as something of a joke, until a white businessman takes the team on a quest to reach the playoffs, something these inner-city kids haven’t done in their 110-year school history.

“Jane’s Journey” — director Lorenz Knauer


The life and work of anthropologist Jane Goodall, whose scientific endeavors were among some of the most important in her field and who, at age 77, spends about 300 days a year traveling for speaking engagements.

“Hell and Back Again” — director Danfung Dennis

Photojournalist Danfung Dennis takes viewers into the violent vortex that is the Afghanistan war, following one wounded soldier home to his wife and his noncombat civilian life — though he is addicted to medication and yet unable to filter real life from the violence he knew.