The year’s crop of Emmy-nominated nonfiction specials is a sober lot that reflects the world we live in.
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” exposes alleged prosecutorial misconduct in his celebrated sex scandal. “Farrah’s Story” chronicles the cancer battle of a dying celebrity. “Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” treks the globe in search of the positive. “102 Minutes That Changed America” relives the horrifying events of 9/11. And “The Alzheimer’s Project: Momentum in Science” explores the complexities of an insidious mental disease.
Not easy-watching stuff.
Marina Zenovich’s HBO doc “Wanted and Desired” examines the Polanski incident, detailing events in the director’s life that may have contributed to his 1977 statutory rape of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. The issue of judicial ethics on the part of Judge Laurence Rittenband is also raised.
“The Polanski case was manipulated by the judge,” Zenovich insists. “When I get on this bandwagon, people think that I’m backing Polanski, but you have to understand all of the facts.”
Zenovich’s probing doc has reopened the sensational case. “In March of this year, the new judge, Judge (Peter) Espinoza, said he could see from the film that there was misconduct in the case, but he wouldn’t address it until Polanski came back,” the director explains. “It’s now in the court of appeals.” Polanski, 76, remains in self-imposed exile in France.
In the 100 hours of shooting NBC’s “Farrah’s Story,” director-exec producer Craig Nevius had to walk a fine line between voyeurism and tasteful storytelling.
“There were times over the two years of filming when I questioned if we should be doing it at all,” Nevius says. “There’s a scene towards the end where Farrah’s feeling good. Then, she goes in for her scan results and hears the bad news. We see her real reaction to hope draining. I just let it play. That scene is one of the hardest things to watch, but it needed to be there.”
In History’s “102 Minutes,” exec producer Susan Werbe plowed through unseen, raw footage of more than 100 filmmakers and videographers. “We took out ads, put out flyers and went on Craigslist,” Werbe explains. “People trusted us to do a job that would service the people who survived and those who died. We were nervous when we put it on because it was so raw. But it is as pure a record of the day as you can get.”
Fox’s ABC special “Incurable Optimist” covers a wide range of upbeat subjects, from cancer survivor Lance Armstrong to Bhutan, where happiness is the national motto. “Michael wanted to show how optimism affected people, how and why it materialized at different times,” exec producer Nelle Fortenberry says. “It was an incredibly freeing project for him — one that allowed him freedom that he doesn’t get so much anymore. As an actor, he says that his greatest challenge is playing a character that doesn’t have Parkinson’s disease. But, on camera, for this special, he clearly has Parkinson’s. It’s part of the story.”
In the two-part HBO doc “Alzheimer’s,” viewers are brought inside the clinics and labs of top scientists as they strive to better detect and diagnose the illness. “We knew it was a story that was underreported in the press because it was so depressing,” exec producer Sheila Nevins explains. “When people say the show is tough to watch, I say, ‘You know, life is tough to live.’ ”
Is television supposed to shrink from the realities of living? “If you want escapist television, there’s a lot to choose from,” Nevins notes. “If you want the truth on television, you have to seek it out.”