Motion Picture Academy narrows field from 145 to a precious few; Kopple, Herzog cut out
Tuesday brought welcome news to a handful of documentary filmmakers, and disappointment to many more.
The Motion Picture Academy revealed its shortlist of 15 films that remain in contention for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, culled from the original 145 films deemed eligible.
Among the 15 to make the list were three that bring renewed attention to America's deeply troubled history with race: Ava Duvernay's 13th, which traces the stigmatisation and persectution of African Americans from slavery through the passage of the 13th Amendement to today; O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman's 464-minute long documentary on O.J. Simpson that situates his life and murder trial in the context of race; and Raoul Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro, based on the trenchant writings of the late James Baldwin.
DuVernay expressed her appreciation for the honor, tweeting, "Thank you to AMPAS doc branch for shortlisting 13th. Especially moving today, the anniversary of the amendment."
Other shortlisted docs include Weiner, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, which follows disgraced political figure Anthony Weiner on his ill-fated 2013 quest to become mayor of New York City. It won the grand jury prize and audience award for U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last January.
Roger Ross Williams, a previous Oscar winner in the documentary short category, made the list with his highly-regarded film Life, Animated, about one family's resilient effort to find a common language with their autistic son.
Alex Gibney, who won the Academy Award for his 2007 film Taxi to the Dark Side, earned his spot on the shortlist with Zero Days, an investigative documentary on the dangers of the government's expanding and largely-secret cyber warfare program. The film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival last February.
Command and Control, like Zero Days an exploration of the potential for disaster in a U.S. military program -- in this case nuclear weapons -- also made the list. Robert Kenner directed the film, based on the book by Eric Schlosser.
Related: Roger Ross Williams on Life, Animated: 'It's really about this family and their love for each other'
The current number one documentary in theaters, The Eagle Huntress, made the shortlist, a day after crossing the $1 million mark in domestic box office returns. Otto Bell directed the film about a girl in the mountains of Mongolia who dares to become her country's first female eagler hunter.
Acclaimed cinematographer Kirsten Joshnson saw her directorial debut make the documentary shortlist: Cameraperson, a film that explores the ethical and moral implications of her cinematic work.
Gianfranco Rosi, another extraordinary director and cinematographer, made the shortlist with Fire at Sea [Fuocoammare], his film shot on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa where thousands of desperate migrants have come ashore, while thousands more have perished before making land. Fire at Sea won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Related: Gianfranco Rosi on the main character in his Fire at Sea: 'He's like a little boy with an old man head'
The Oscar doc shortlist was determined by members of the Academy's documentary branch, in a "preferential voting" system. The top 15 films will be reduced to the final five Oscar nominees, announced on January 24, 2017. The Oscar ceremony will take place Sunday, February 26, 2017.
These are the other five films to make the shortlist:
>Gleason, directed by Clay Tweel
>Hooligan Sparrow, directed by Nanfu Wang
>The Ivory Game, directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson
>Tower, directd by Keith Maitland
>The Witness, directed by James Solomon
While some of the most talked-abut documentaries of the year made the shortlist, there were some notable ommissions.
>Morgan Neville, an Oscar winner for 20 Feet From Stardom, who qualified with his documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Neville was shortlisted last year for his film Best of Enemies, co-directed by Robert Gordon.
>Werner Hezog struck out twice. Two of his documentaries were eligible -- Into the Inferno andLo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World -- but neither made the shortlist.
>Barbara Kopple, one of the most famous names in documentary film and a two-time Oscar winner for American Dream and Harlan County U.S.A., did not make the list for Miss Sharon Jones!
>Unlocking the Cage, the animal rights documentary from legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
>Do Not Resist, by director Craig Atkinson, which won the top documentary prize at Tribeca.
>Southwest of Salem, directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi. The film played an instrumental role in winning exoneration of four women, lesbian Latinas, wrongly convicted in Texas of child sexual assault.
Other notable ommissions: Amanda Knox, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years, Jim: The James Foley Story, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Nuts!, Joe Berlingr's Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, and Tickled.
To become eligible in the documentary category nonfiction films had to screen for at least a week in New York and Los Angeles and be reviewed by a movie critic in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.