2012: A Documentary Year in Review

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In 2012, a documentary became the most viral video ever, another was blamed for violence around the world. Filmmakers stood up for their rights, others lost inner battles. POV’s Documentary Blog recaps twelve stories that inspired, thrilled and surprised us this year.

Looking for the Best Documentaries of 2012? We’re tracking festivals, critics, blogs, award shows and more to determine the top docs of the year.


12. Adam Yauch, Beastie Boy and Oscilloscope Labs Founder, Passes Away

Adam Yauch (Photo by Fabio Venni, Creative Commons License BY-SA 2.0)

Adam Yauch performing in 2007. (Photo by Fabio Venni, Creative Commons License BY-SA 2.0)

On May 4, 2012, Adam Yauch (aka MCA of the Beastie Boys) passed away at the age of 47 after a three-year battle with cancer.

Yauch formed the Beastie Boys with Michael “Mike D” Diamond in 1979. With Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, they released their multi-platinum debut record, Licensed to Ill, in 1986. In April 2012, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Adam Yauch was also accomplished in the film industry. He founded Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent distribution company, in February 2008. Its first release was Yauch’s basketball documentary, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot. He had previously directed the Beastie Boys concert film – Awesome: I F—- Shot That!, and several music videos.

Since its founding, Oscilloscope has distributed well regarded independent documentary works, including Exit Through the Gift Shop, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about his Father, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, No Impact Man and Burma VJ. (KS)


11. Participant Media and CNN Films Add to the TV Documentary Landscape

In December, Participant Media (the backers behind films with a social conscience An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc. and Waiting for “Superman”, among others), announced it had purchased Documentary Channel and would seek to attract the elusive 18-34 demographic in a new 24-hour cable television venture. Deadline Hollywood reported that Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) were among many already developing programs for Participant’s nascent TV division.

CNN entered the fray in October, announcing the creation of CNN Films, a unit that would acquire and develop documentaries to air beginning in 2013. In a press release, CNN said Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times) and Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) would be among the filmmakers creating documentaries for the news outlet.


10. Ken Burns Cites Shield Law in Protecting “The Central Park Five” Footage from NYC Lawyers

Yusef Salaam, one of “The Central Park Five” in 1990. (Photo via Sundance Selects)

Filmmakers including Ken Burns defied a subpoena and argued for documentarians’ rights when they refused to hand over notes and outtakes from a 2011 book and 2012 documentary of the same name, The Central Park Five, that was years in the making and, as one can expect for a film under the Burns banner, meticulously researched.

The City of New York requested the raw material as it defends itself in a federal lawsuit brought on by the men who were convicted — and exonerated 10 years ago — in the Central Park jogger rape case.

A lawyer for the city told the New York Times, “This is the plaintiffs, all of them, discussing the heart of the litigation.”

The filmmaking team, which includes Burns’s daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, continue to fight the subpoena on the basis of reporters’ privilege. They said in a joint statement, “We strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that this process, including the reporting notes and outtakes, come under the New York reporters’ shield law.”

The Central Park Five premiered at Cannes in May and later won the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Award for best nonfiction film. It is scheduled to air on PBS in 2013.

Related: Ken Burns on the Ken Burns Effect


9. Anti-Obama Documentary a Surprising Hit, but it’s No “Fahrenheit 9/11″

Poster for the documentary '2016: Obama's America'

'2016: Obama's America' earned more in box-office receipts than any other documentary in 2012.

Conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza’s film 2016: Obama’s America was a surprise hit this summer, grossing $33.5 million in its domestic theatrical release, according to Box Office Mojo. It earned more than Disneynature’s Chimpanzee and Katy Perry: Part of Me.

The film claims President Barack Obama has a secret agenda to fulfill the anti-colonial dreams of his late father. It makes the case that if given a second term, President Obama would collapse the U.S. economy and give rise to a United States of Islam led by a nuclear-armed Iran.

D’Souza’s film was timed to screen in theaters before this year’s presidential election, as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 had in 2004. Moore’s film criticized President George W. Bush’s response to the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks and connected the Bush’s family to Osama bin Laden’s. 2016: Obama’s America outgrossed all of Michael Moore’s films except Fahrenheit 9/11, which remains the top-grossing documentary of all time.

Earlier in the year, the president entered the election race with The Road We’ve Traveled, a YouTube video directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). It continues a tradition of presidential campaign documentaries that dates back to 1896. The official video was watched 2.5 million times in 2012. (MC)

Read More: 2016: Obama’s America: The Most Offensively Funny Movie of the Year


8. A Fair-Use Exception for Docmakers

Burned DVD (Photo by Flickr user ninjanoodles)

(Photo by Flickr user ninjanoodles)

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed in 1998, criminalizes the reproduction of copyrighted material and circumvention of digital rights management technology in the age of the Web, thus preventing intellectual property from being infringed on a large scale. It even protects websites, such as YouTube, that host content, provided they remove copyrighted material when a rights holder files a claim.

In October, the Library of Congress, which has the power to grant these types of exceptions, announced that it will be legal to extract clips from DVDs until 2015 — but only for use in documentaries, noncommercial videos or nonfiction multimedia e-books offering film analysis or for educational purposes related to film studies.

Fair-use advocates argued that the exceptions are inconsistent and arbitrary. DVDs can be ripped to be played on a smartphone, but not a tablet. And no exceptions were made for Blu-ray discs. (MC)


7. Video of Record-Breaking Jump Breaks YouTube Record Too

Felix Baumgartner’s October 2012 space jump broke a number of records — highest jump from a platform (128,100 feet), longest freefall distance (119.846 feet), and highest maximum vertical velocity (833.9 mph).

He also broken a record in the world wide web — concurrent YouTube livestream views. Eight million people simultaneously watched the video Red Bull Stratos – freefall from the edge of space. YouTube’s previous record was 500,000 concurrent streams (for the 2012 Olympics). For comparison, 111.3 million people watched the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in the 2012 Superbowl, according to an NBC statement.

The National Geographic Channel and the BBC filmed the 20-second record-breaking fall with more than 20 cameras. A two-hour documentary, Space Dive, was broadcast on The National Geographic Channel in November. (MC)


6. Transmediafication!

The nascent field of cross-platform documentary-making got a boost in 2012 with new initiatives to support and exhibit new media work, both fiction and nonfiction, centered in New York City.

The Tribeca Film Festival announced, in keeping with trends in entertainment and digital media, it will include a new program, Tribeca Storyscapes, at its 2013 festival. The program will showcase artists who tell stories in interactive, web-based or multi-platform formats.

The City of New York announced that IFP would be managing a new media center under the banner of its “Made in NY” initiative. The center, scheduled to open in mid-2013, will include a first-of-its-kind “Transmedia Incubator,” classes and work space for start-up companies.

And hackathons, where filmmakers and technologists collaborate in short bursts, were the rage in 2012. Tribeca, Mozilla, StoryCode and Zeega lead workshops. POV‘s first hackathon in August launched five projects, two of which had been “released” by December.


5. Regrets Over Rule Changes for Documentary Oscar Qualification

(Photo by Flickr user shankbone)

The documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, led by Michael Moore, made sweeping changes to its nomination procedure in January 2012, then regretted those changes as the year wore on.

At first the branch sought to decrease the number of Oscar-eligible docs — Only films that had achieved a one-week theatrical run in L.A. or New York, along with a review in the L.A. Times or the New York Times, would be eligible for a nomination. And it also did away with committee voting so that all members could vote on all documentaries, just like the fiction category.

But as the voting deadline neared, members started receiving more documentaries than they could watch. A series of letters sent out to members trying to help spread the screening load appeared to show favoritism. And the IDA-sponsored DocuWeeks, which helps documentaries get their one-week runs, seemed even more like a Oscar-nomination loophole than a showcase of great films.

By October, Michael Moore was telling Deadline Hollywood the branch should scrap all of its rules and just do as the other branches do. “Maybe the idea here is there are no special rules for the documentary branch. Why do we think we’re special?”

Read More: With New Documentary Requirements, Oscar Is Just Being Oscar


4. Anti-Islam Video Sparks Violence Around the World

An image from Innocence of Muslims.

Innocence of Muslims, a video that demeaned the Prophet Muhammad, sparked outrage and violence across the Muslim world in mid-September 2012. Protests broke out in Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Iran in response to the film, with deadly clashes near Western embassies in Tunisia and Sudan. An American fast-food restaurant set on fire in Lebanon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admonished the U.S.-based filmmaker and underscored that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the video. “We absolutely reject its content and message,” Clinton said in a statement. In Benghazi, Libya, an attack that killed a U.S. Ambassador and other Americans was initially attributed to the video, but the State Department later said there was no connection. High-profile hearings continue in Washington, DC.

Mark Basseley Youssef, the filmmaker behind the video, was arrested in late September, facing eight charges of probation violation for bank fraud and identity theft in 2010. His list of probation violations includes lying about his involvement with the film. (MC)

Read More: Innocence of Muslims: A Filmmaking Success of the Worst Kind


3. “Bully” is Granted a PG-13 Rating

The Weinstein Company and the Motion Picture Association of America fought for weeks in February and March 2012 over the rating of the documentary Bully. It initially received an R rating, and lost a subsequent appeal by a single vote. However, the appeal was overturned and the film was granted a PG-13 rating two weeks after its release.

Notable celebrities and politicians, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper, came out in support of the film, and a petition by Midwestern teenager Katy Butler garnered over 500,000 signatures in support of the lenient rating.

The directors and producers of the film held that the language was necessary for maintaining the efficacy of the film’s message. Producer Cynthia Lowen, in an Msnbc video, maintained that this was the language that was heard every day by teenagers in schools and censoring those words would do a disservice to the reality of the pain inflicted on bullied kids.

A few compromises were made to appease the MPAA. According to a Weinstein Company statement, the new version of the film removed three uses of the F-word. However, the film was able to retain a particularly powerful scene on a school bus where the word is uttered three times. Two F-words usually guarantees an R. (KS)

Read More: Re-Edited ‘Bully’ Receives PG-13 Rating In Time for Theatrical Expansion


2. “KONY 2012″ Hits 100 Million Views, Becomes a Case Study for Filmmaker-Activists

A screencap from the Kony 2012 video showing the message: Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come

KONY 2012, a 30-minute web video, called for the capture of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But unlike any advocacy video that came before it — or any video for that matter — it went viral in March 2012, receiving an unprecedented 100 million views within 6 days and creating a case study for filmmakers and activists.

The nonprofit organization Invisible Children, who produced the video, also received its share of criticism, for oversimplification of a complex issue, for graceless use of melodrama (and CG explosions), and for questionable use of funding.

So what made it so popular? Was it the organization’s ability to reach churchgoing youth active on social media? Was it the appeal to “slacktivism” and the notion that doing nothing but clicking a share button could right a wrong? Was it a public strategy to reach celebrities and politicians with broad influence? Probably yes on all counts. But if documentary filmmakers learned anything, the massive success of KONY 2012 has yet to be replicated.

Read More: KONY 2012: Analyzing the Viral Documentary Video


1. Documentary Filmmaking Is Not a Hobby

Tax form (Photo by Flickr username 401(K) 2012. Used under Creative Commons license BY-SA 2.0.)

(Photo by Flickr username 401(K) 2012. Creative Commons license BY-SA 2.0.)

On April 19, 2012, a U.S. tax court judge ruled that Lee Storey, director of Smile ‘Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story, would be able to claim losses incurred from the production of her documentary.

The judge who had previously called documentary-making a “hobby” now implied that the documentary filmmaking industry was inherently educational and, therefore, was less likely to be ventured for profit. The new judgment found that Storey had conducted business in a professional manner, including having a business plan, seeking financing, seeking advice on rough cuts and hiring professional industry experts.

The ruling has large implications for the documentary community given that such filmmaking can often be unprofitable for years and that the IRS traditionally defines a business as one that is profitable for three years out of every five. (KS)


Contributors: MC – Morlene Chin; EM – Emma Miller; AS – Adam Schartoff; KS – Kapish Singla

Check out the Best Documentaries of 2012 and our 2012 Holiday Gift Guide. Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

POV Staff
POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.