[EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play presents “Should Win,” a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the rest of the major categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
The Academy Awards are kind of funny when you think about it; the Academy sure does have a tendency to honor films that gloss over bigger societal problems or films that seem to fit the bill of accessible historical relevancy. Which is probably why the Best Documentary category is always of particular interest to true cinephiles.
Documentaries are as close to pure cinema as we have yet to get to. They tell our stories. The stories of those we don’t know. They have the capability of breaking the fourth wall without winking at the audience. And sometimes they can make our chests swell with that uncommon feeling of humility. From the trials and tribulations of a radical environmental group in If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front to the long gestating murder trial of the West Memphis Three in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, audiences in 2011 had plenty of riveting non-fiction content to choose from. And although the Academy “has” to go with big topic documentaries as the night’s big winner, I can’t help but feel shorted on what the Academy could’ve inspired by honoring more innovative and, for lack of a better word, “timeless” content.
For example, Hell and Back Again stretches the cinematic canvas of a documentary and adds greater heft to an almost decade long war in the Middle East. On the other hand, Pina merged Wim Wenders’ flair for transcendent storytelling with groundbreaking 3D technology.
Yet, the most striking of this year’s nominees is the underdog sports film Undefeated. Following what at first seems to be a hopeless season with the Manassas High School varsity football team in Memphis, Tennessee; Undefeated emerges as one of the more impressive examples of cinema verite, otherwise known as “direct cinema.” Nearly every shot is handheld; in fact much of the film seems to be unfurling in real time, in front of our very eyes. The camera is free flowing and reacts to the reality of every situation. Like other great examples of direct cinema, from Don’t Look Back to the thematically similar Hoop Dreams, Undefeated breathes with an immediacy that is void of headline political agenda, broad-stroke narrative fallacies and any sort of forced sentiment. This is observant, go-for-the-throat filmmaking.
The late, great direct cinema pioneer Richard Leacock once explained this style of filmmaking. Leacock said: “We had a whole bunch of rules. We were shooting handheld, no tripods, no lights, no questions…never ask anybody to do anything.” And Undefeated does a tremendous job of not asking its subjects what they’re feeling. It simply observes and watches the game of life unravel both on and off the field. It is the documentary-feature that SHOULD WIN the Oscar.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.”