Skip to main content

First Look: Where Were You in '82?

By Tamara Krinsky

From NATURE: Andes: The Dragon's Back

As we at IDA celebrate our silver anniversary, we wanted to see what was happening in the world as the founders came together to form the organization.

On the big screen, movie-goers wanted to get as far as they could from reality. Three of the top 10 films of the year—E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Poltergeist —were sci-fi blockbusters. Even the Emmy winner for Outstanding Informational Special, Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, looked into the realm of the supernatural.

It’s no wonder that science and technology were on everyone’s mind, for it seemed as though we had suddenly taken a giant step forward into the fantastical future. Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” was the non-human computer, and Seattle dentist Dr. Barney Clark was the first person implanted with the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. Kodak introduced the Disc camera and RCA VideoDisc ads urged consumers to “Bring the Magic Home.” When Sony and Phillips launched the Compact Disc and THX was developed for use in movie theaters, the way we heard our entertainment was changed  forever.

The awards given out each year reflect the issues that people are thinking about and often shine a light upon current trends or developments in filmmaking. If you’re looking for a few new items for your Netflix queue, here are some of the celebrated films and filmmakers of 1982 you may want to check out.


Academy Award Nominees: Best Documentary Feature of 1982

After the Axe—Sturla Gunnarsson (director/producer) and Steve Lucas (writer/producer).

The National Film Board of Canada, which produced After the Axe, describes the film as “a cinematic drama that examines executive terminations and a new industry that specializes in handling them.” A twist in the evolution of the fiction/actuality hybrid form, this film features the central character, D.R. “Biff” Wilson, a composite figure played by an actor and based upon extensive conversations with fired executives. He was featured alongside real-life execs in the film.

Ben’s Mill—John Karol and Michel Chalufour (directors/producers).

Ben’s Mill looked at Ben Thressher’s Vermont-based water-powered wood-working mill, one of the few left in the US. This portrait of rural New England life and the woodworking process was part of the second season of PBS’s short-lived Odyssey, a series of anthropological and archaeological documentaries produced by the Public Broadcasting Associates of Boston.

In Our Water—Meg Switzgable (director/producer).

Environmental issues have always made for strong documentary fare. In Our Water, which later aired on the inaugural season of PBS’ FRONTLINE, tells the story of a New Jersey family who discovers that their drinking water is contaminated with deadly poisons from a nearby landfill, and the family’s six-year battle with local and federal officials over chemical pollution.

Just Another Missing Kid—John Zaritsky (director/producer).

The Oscar winner documents the search for missing teenager Eric Wilson, including how little the various police forces in both the United States and Canada were of help. Eventually, two hitchhikers Wilson picked up confessed to the crime. The film is notable for having its interview subjects recreate their actions for the camera. Controversial at the time, the technique has been oft employed by many other filmmakers.

A Portrait of Giselle—Joseph Wishy (director/producer).

Alas, the hard part of celebrating a silver anniversary is that there are bound to be individuals who are no longer with us; ballet impresario Wishy passed away in July 1993. His outstanding arts documentary follows the New York City Ballet’s Patricia McBride as she prepares for the role of Giselle, using her personal story as the jumping-off point for further exploration of that particular ballet.


Academy Award Nominees: Documentary Short Subject

If You Love This Planet (Edward Le Lorrain and Terri Nash, directors/producers), the Oscar winner, is essentially a filmed lecture given to American students in 1981 by Dr. Helen Caldicott outlining the development and dangers of the atomic bomb. Given the lecture format, one could argue—and distributor Mitchell Block has—that the film is a precursor to 2006 Oscar-winner An Inconvenient Truth, especially given Caldicott’s words, “You’re going to have to change your life if you love this planet.”

The seeds of An Inconvenient Truth were present in more ways than one in the batch of films honored with nominations for Documentary Short Subject in 1982. The Klan: A Legacy of Hate in America was produced by Werner Schumann and Charles Guggenheim, father of Davis Guggenheim, director of the Al Gore eco-doc.  

The three other nominees in this category are all no stranger to Oscar. Freida Lee Mock’s To Live or Let Die was the first of her four nominations in the Doc Short Subject category. She and Terry Sanders won the 1994 Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category for Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. In addition to her outstanding body of work, Mock was one of the first Governors of the Documentary Branch on the Board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Writer/producer/director Robert Richter’s Gods of Metal looked at how anti-nuclear activists at the height of the Cold War showed their concerns through non-violent actions. Richter recently executive-produced Steven Okazaki’s White Light/Black Rain with Sheila Nevins, and received Academy Award nominations for The Gifts and School of Assassins.

John G. Avildsen’s Traveling Hopefully follows producer David Jones and journalist Kevin Page as they seek to track down and interview professional political lobbyists, without much success. Avildsen may be more familiar to movie fans for his direction of narrative features such as The Karate Kid, Save the Tiger, Lean on Me and Rocky, for which he won an Academy Award.


More Milestones in DocLand

IDA is one of several organizations celebrating or about to celebrate landmark anniversaries. We’d like to wish a hearty “Congratulations” to several of our brethren and sistren in nonfiction.

PBS’s Nature also hit the magical age of 25 this year. The outstanding natural history program has explored everything from the African plains to the Antarctic ice, winning a plethora of awards along the way. Los Angeles’ Outfest and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, both fantastic showcases for nonfiction programming, were also launched in 1982.

PBS’ P.O.V. celebrated its 20th season this year, and International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) marks its first two decades with a special edition in November. The Hot Springs Documentary Festival was launched 15 years ago, as was Seventh Art Releasing, the Los Angeles-based distributor. The Full Frame Documentary Festival and the United Nations Association Film Festival both celebrate their 10th anniversaries this year, and MIPDOC and RealScreen Magazine will turn 10 next year. American Experience, the venerable history doc series on PBS, celebrates its 20th in 2008; its executive producer, Mark Samels, was present at the very first meeting of the IDA in February 1982.

Not to be outdone, the San Francisco International Film Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, as did Producers Library, the stock-footage archive, which will mark the occasion with a relaunch of its webste,