How the Hell Did Paradise Lost 3 Lose the Best Documentary Oscar?

Congratulations to Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, whose film Undefeated lived up to its title at last night's Academy Awards by taking home the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Exploring the intersection of class, race and a hard-luck high-school football team, the doc started earning fans a year ago at Sundance South by Southwest — including Harvey Weinstein, who acquired Undefeated on the spot and promptly fast-tracked it for 2012 awards glory. Mission accomplished. The only thing Undefeated didn't do? How about help get three unjustly convicted men — one condemned to die — out of prison?

Which brings us to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the final installment of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's nearly 20-year investigation into the grisly murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark., and the subsequent trials and convictions of three teenagers in the case. Since the first film debuted in 1996 (Paradise Lost 2: Revelations appeared in 2000), the series's illumination of police and judicial misconduct — to say nothing of misplaced allegations of Satanism and other perceived motives — became instrumental in the crusade to free Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin. The "West Memphis 3" quickly developed into a cause célèbre among observers from the cultural to legal realms; Metallica contributed music to the films, further boosting their profiles, while defense lawyers and DNA experts raced to find evidence persuasive enough to save Echols from the death chamber and, hopefully, release all three men from behind bars.

Of course, as a regular consumer of media, you likely already know these details. Unless, that is, you're a member of the Academy's clinically insane Documentary Branch. In which case you should be ashamed of yourself.

Not to take anything away from Undefeated, but... Well, actually, yeah. I would like to take something away from Undefeated: Its Best Documentary Oscar. Not necessarily because of any technical inferiority — it's a fine, inspiring, well-made film — but merely on the qualitative basis of not having saved a man's life or helped liberate the West Memphis 3 through thousands upon thousands of hours of research, interviews, editing and, ultimately, pure storytelling.

On the one hand, sure: As Berlinger told Movieline a few weeks ago in our Documentary Nominee roundtable, "[T]here can be no bigger prize than having helped get three innocent men get released from prison after 18 plus years of wrongful imprisonment." On the other hand, fuck that. Let's just be honest: If we're going to reward films like last night's Documentary Short winner Saving Face or recent Doc Feature triumphs like An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove and Inside Job for their honorable activist intent, then what more does Paradise Lost 3 have to do to win over Academy voters? If Berlinger and Sinofsky had freed three dolphins from certain death in Japan, would that have tilted the Oscar scales in their favor? Or maybe filmed a boring-ass slideshow detailing their findings in the case? Al Gore couldn't even stop global warming. These guys exposed one of America's most protracted miscarriages of justice (made all the worse by the fact that prosecutors refuse to reopen the case, thus leaving the murder mystery unsolved) not once, not twice, but three times, establishing the narrative foundation on which the whole campaign to free the West Memphis 3 was built.

So what gives? Was this the last indignity to be committed by the Documentary Branch under its previous set of rules — a garish sloughing off of a film funded and broadcast by HBO as opposed to one following the classic theatrical pattern that Academy leadership so cherishes? What a truly fine barometer of quality, except that Undefeated had the same one-week qualifying run that PL3 had, only opening in theaters a week-and-a-half ago. Weinstein and HBO took advantage of the same loophole. Could it have just been the Weinstein factor alone — Harvey being Harvey, pushing his nonfiction wares in his Artist/Iron Lady downtime?

Or, as a friend suggested to me this morning in the clearing Oscar smoke, is this just the Doc Branch holding out for the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis, a recent Sundance premiere due in theaters at some point in 2012? Jackson is the only figure in this schema with as much (if not more) Academy clout as Weinstein, and it's entirely conceivable that whatever momentum gathered in Undefeated's favor — or, perhaps more accurately, in any direction away from PL3 — began with a quiet, sturdy nudge from New Zealand. It's impossible to say or ever know for sure — unless Weinstein acquires the currently distributor-less West of Memphis, I suppose, in which case even one of those dolphins from The Cove could do the math and know the fix is in.

In any case, the whole thing amounts to another black eye for the Academy's Doc branch, a body ostensibly charged with the responsibility of recognizing each year's best achievement in documentary filmmaking but which has so lost the plot regarding the form's boldest, most influential works that it has sunk irretrievably beneath contempt. Like, I get why Banksy's intoxicating, masterful Exit Through the Gift Shop last year couldn't surmount the dry, staid recession expose Inside Job; the branch has always sought to persuade everybody to believe that it is preoccupied with Issues, even as it routinely, criminally snubs the likes of Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) from even being nominated. But that inconsistency aside, here was a chance for the Academy to recognize filmmaking that made as much of a social impact as any Best Documentary Feature winner since perhaps Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (another documentary originated by HBO, incidentally) claimed the prize 22 years ago.

Moreover, it was a crucial opportunity for the Academy to help further mobilize the case for fully exonerating the West Memphis 3, whose release was conditional on an Alford plea that upheld their guilty verdict while leaving them on the equivalent of 10 years' probation. The governor of Arkansas won't pardon them without an alternative conviction, which prosecutors refuse to seek pretty much out of spite. So the saga continues, but whatever. As long as Harvey's happy, right?

I can't overstate how frustrated this makes me. If nothing else, the Paradise Lost films taught us how to know a spot a sham when we see one — to stick to the facts and to your values and keep your eyes on the prize. But with the Oscars at this point, who even wants this particular prize? When one of the only Academy Awards categories with any legitimate sociocultural import is turned into the same old irrelevant boy's club where we find shit like Real Steel nominated, what values are we adhering to? For Christ's sake, people: The Transformers trilogy has more Oscars than the Paradise Lost trilogy. CORRECTION: The Transformers films have not in fact won an Oscar. I'm kind of happy to be wrong about this, but still, I regret the error.

This is not acceptable. Something must change. I'd hate to think that it begins with me giving up, but that's probably where it's headed. In any case, I'm open to suggestions.

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  • pinkyt says:

    Full disclosure: I have seen all three of the PL lost films, followed the case, and been heartened by the final (although still quite troubling) outcome. What these filmmakers did for these three men over the years was amazing. However, as a stand-alone documentary itself, I did not find PL3 to be particularly well done (compared to "Undefeated", the original PL or even to "The Thin Blue Line", which also eventually led to the release of a wrongly convicted man).

    It would have made for a great Oscar moment if they won, but I did not think PL3 was a great film. The documentary branch has screwed up many, many times over the years (and seems to be one of the most clique-ish and political branches of the academy) but I don't think this was one of those time.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      I did not find PL3 to be particularly well done (compared to "Undefeated", the original PL or even to "The Thin Blue Line", which also eventually led to the release of a wrongly convicted man)

      Fair enough. I have problems with PL3 myself, but for me, the Oscar would have honored all three films, which do collectively stand apart as a nonfiction milestone. It might have even made up in some cosmic sense for overlooking The Thin Blue Line years ago, though that's a whole other pit of frustration.

      • pinkyt says:

        Oh, yeah, pit of frustration for me too - TBL was both revolutionary and incredibly well-made/compelling. Even though I disagree with you on PL3, I will agree that in general the doc branch sucks and is out of touch with whatever cutting edge work is going on in the documentary field.

    • Beth says:

      I *completely* disagree. I have seen all three PL films and WEST OF MEMPHIS and I think that PARADISE LOST 3 is the best of them all. It powerfully built the case in a way that made it a stand-alone entry in the series. And the pacing and plot development did an excellent job paralleling that of the actual case. It was an excellent film and the one I recommend the most to friend.
      Getting to see Damien and Jason in person for the Sundance Q&A for WEST OF MEMPHIS was truly an honor. And I appreciated the different places that film went. But PARADISE LOST 3 is, in my opinion, the definitive film on the case (so far).

  • Compassionate Reader says:

    Even if "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" wasn't a cinematic masterpiece, it did much more for justice and truth than "Undefeated" (or any of the other nominees) did. For that reason alone, it was more worthy of the Academy Award for Best Documentary. After all, is winning a football championship more important than freeing innocent men?

  • filmex says:

    I'd say it's less a conspiracy than the fact that their third WM3 doc was the weakest of the trio.

    The first two were brilliant and like "The Thin Blue Line", actually freed someone from prison. But the third film was more a remix of the first two, with little new content.

    Plus, they weren't helped by the fact that Johnny-come-too-lately Peter Jackson cornered some interview subjects to exclusive contracts so the HBO boys didn't have access.

    Berlinger and Sinofsky saved someone from death row. Peter Jackson, previously busy making hobbit and giant ape movies, did a glorified "Dateline". I wouldn't hold out for an Oscar.

  • huh? says:

    I could see you making this argument for PL 1 - but arguing about the Academy's messed up priorities is a waste of breath. the doc branch has been busted for years and the undefeated was great as opposed to "good, but way too self-congratulatory"

  • Nan King says:

    I agree with PinkyT -Paradise Lost 3 was not a well made, or compelling film. It was long and rambling and mostly consisted of scavenged footage from the previous docs. The Academy made the right decision, Undefeated was a vastly superior piece of film making. A film about justice issues does not automatically entitle people to an Oscar; all films should judged on their merits and in this instance, the Academy got it right.

  • There were better films says:

    Not to mention the fact that academy overlooked the far superior Senna, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Project Nim, the Interrupters, Bill Cunningham… all films that deserved a shot at the Oscar this year. 2011 was a great year for docs. Isn't it just an honor to be nominated?

  • well... says:

    Tiny note - Undefeated didn't play Sundance. It world premiered at SXSW last year.

  • Jiri Bakala says:

    The Oscars aren't - and should NOT be - an award for activism, but an award for the art of documentary storytelling. Period.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Then guys like Banksy and Marshall Curry (for Street Fight in particular) should be Oscar-winners.

      • Jake says:

        And furthermore, the best docs this year weren't even up for best doc.

        The Interrupters ran circles around every film in the category and didn't even make the Top 15 shortlist.

        Oh, and PL3 was a good movie, but I don't know that it was better than PL1. And I second the reference to Thin Blue Line.

        And I agree, Exit Through the Gift Shop was robbed. That might have been the best film of last year period.

        But again... Interrupters. Great doc filmmaking. Just tops!

        • KevyB says:

          Yes, it SHOULD be about how good the documentary is, not what feats it accomplishes or whether the content is more important than the content of the other nominated films. If we applied that to Best Picture, then Holocaust movies would win every year.

          Also, the Documentary Branch is not solely to blame. They only NOMINATE the movies, the entire Academy votes for the winner. So PL3 losing to Undefeated has nothing to do with the Documentary Branch. Interrupters NOT being nominated does.

  • Debbie2 says:

    I have not seen Undefeated so obviously I cannot compare. I have watched PL3, and the previous 2, and thought as a whole they were spectacular. I am in New Zealand and am looking forward to Peter's West of Memphis.

    I really think you are on a hiding to nothing when you start trying to compare top quality documentaries. I have always thought the prize is actually in the nomination rather than the win, as a documentary in itself a presentation of a true and factual situation, and therefore it gets emotional. If it were to be rewarded solely on direction and production, I think the soul of a lot of documentaries would be lost.

    Let's celebrate the nomination of some excellent documentaries, that really are quite incomparable.

  • AS says:

    Dumb footballers

  • shaenon says:

    I agree 110%. PL3 hands down should have won. I wanted more than anything to see Mr.Baldwin walk on that stage. UNBELIEVABLE!!

  • Lisa Francis says:

    i have a strong feeling that the people who still think the WM3 are guilty (tood moore,terry hobbs and the likes) made their voices heard to the Academy to make sure the case did not get any more recongnition...just my opinion.

  • shimie says:

    Controversy.... a set, not the majority of parent were objecting..... and let's not negate the fact that some government officials i Arkansas may have brought pressure to bare.

  • BPH says:

    PL3 is not a good movie - so what's the problem? It's great to support three wrongfully accused, but you surely have to meet a certain film making standard to get an Oscar. The Paradise Lost series was always made for and funded by television, and they were never intended to be theatrical films.

  • cattail says:

    Lisa, if that were true, don't you think the Academy would have listened to the parents and would not have nominated it as one of the 5 best documentaries of 2012? I think the loss had more to do with Jackson and West of Memphis.

  • Frank says:

    How the Hell Did Paradise Lost 3 Lose the Best Documentary Oscar? Er... cause it was biased and missing many important details.

  • A says:

    The people in the Academy who didn't vote for PL3 to win need to be outted and subsequently publicly tarred and feathered. WOW did they get it wrong this year.

  • Diane Rene says:

    very exciting stuff.. it shoulda coulda & woulda got my vote again and again

  • Cherie says:

    While I think PL3 was loads better than PL2, I actually thing the first PL was the most worthy of an Oscar. PL3 was mostly retread stuff. It's only saving grace was the WM3 being released while it was being finished. Would the argument for Best Doc. be as loud if they were still in prison? I don't necessarily think so. At the end of the day, 3 innocent men are free. And that is the most important thing. Not Oscars.