Won't You Be My Neighbor? and RBG are in, but Michael Moore, Aretha Franklin left out
Shortlists are generally as notable for what they leave out as what they include. That's arguably the case with the Oscar documentary shortlist released on Monday, which was absent Michael Moore's latest film and a much-talked about documentary on Aretha Franklin.
Fahrenheit 11/9 didn't make it, despite Moore's Oscar-winning pedigree and a successful box office run. Amazing Grace, meanwhile, was a last-minute qualifier in the Oscar documentary race, debuting only last month after a 46-year delay. The film, centered on Aretha Franklin's recording of her acclaimed live gospel album, had been held up by technical problems and then legal challenges from the singer. But her death in August paved the way for the film's release, perhaps too late for full consideration by Oscar Documentary Branch voters.
In lieu of Fahrenheit and Amazing Grace, the doc shortlist was dominated by the biggest box office hits of the year. Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor? -- which earned an astounding $22.6 million -- made the list as did RBG, the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that has earned $14 million in theaters. Betsy West, co-director of RBG with Julie Cohen, alluded to the shortlist news via Twitter.
Also making the list is Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle's hit documentary that tells the strange story of triplets who were separated at birth and later discovered each other as adults. That has made $12.3 million at the box office. Free Solo, which has collected almost $11 million so far, also joined the party. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's doc follows climber Alex Honnold on his attempt to scale Yosemite's El Capitan without benefit of ropes.
"The fact that people are responding to the film is very, very meaningful to us," Vasarhelyi tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "It's wonderful. It's amazing. We're shocked because it wasn't something that we ever thought about."
A slew of international-focused films earned spots on the shortlist--some seemingly coming out of nowhere. The Distant Barking of Dogs, directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, focuses on a Ukrainian boy living in a village depopulated in the midst of war with Russia.
Joining that film is Communion, a documentary from Poland directed by Anna Zamecka that revolves around a teenager girl who cares for her autistic brother and "dysfunctional father," with no mother to aid her.
Among better known international films to make the shortlist, The Silence of Others explores the legacy of torture and assassination that scarred Spain during the rule of dictator General Francisco Franco. Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar directed that film, with Pedro Almodóvar executive producing.
Of Fathers and Sons, directed by Talal Derki, centers on the filmmaker's infiltration of a radical Islamist family in Northern Syria. At enormous personal risk, Derki examined a patriarchal ideology that puts adhering to a strict definition of Islam above every other consideration.
"The way you speak, they way you eat, the way women should act, their life, the way you dress, the way you leave your beard, politically, everything [is controlled]," Derki explains. "You can defeat a dictatorship, but how do you defeat a guy who speaks in the name of Allah, of God?"
On Her Shoulders, Alexandria Bombach's film about Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, made the shortlist. But another film about a Nobel Peace Prize winner did not. That was Derek Doneen's The Price of Everything, an acclaimed documentary on Kailash Satyarthi and his efforts to end child slavery.
The Netflix documentary Shirkers, directed by Sandi Tan, appears on the shortlist, but some other Netflix contenders like Quincy and Reversing Roe failed to make the cut. Shirkers explores Tan's experience making a horror film as a teenager in her native Singapore. Her remarkable achievement was ruined when her adult mentor on the project, a mysterious man named Georges Cardona, ran off with the completed footage.
"This film is the story of me recounting all of that in my dealing with this loss," Tan explains, "pulling my friends along this journey, and a new set of friends--other people I discovered along the way whose lives had been affected by the actions of this Georges Cardona."
Stories with a domestic focus earned the majority of recognition from the Documentary Branch.
Minding the Gap, one of the most honored films of the year, earned a spot. Bing Liu directed the film that reveals the emotional damage sustained by Liu and two friends as they grew up in Rockford, Illinois. To escape their abusive home lives, they gravitated toward skateboarding.
Other remaining Oscar contenders touch on aspects of race in American culture.
In Hale County This Morning, This Evening director RaMell Ross creates a portrait of African-American experience in a rural Alabama community, defying the stereotypes often attached to depictions of Black America.
"It was incredibly difficult" to describe the film to potential backers, Ross told us, "which is evidenced by every 'pitch' [being] completely different. I would talk about the film differently every time. I think that helped to not reduce it in my own head and to allow my relationship to the film to be as spontaneous as each day would come."
Charm City from Marilyn Ness offers a ground-level view of some of Baltimore's most dangerous neighborhoods, where residents have been systematically denied opportunity--in part through redlining that kept quality health care, education and transportation out of reach. But as Ness reveals, some remarkable individuals, including neighborhood peacekeepers, are helping to build a better future for Baltimore's youth. Among them is Alex Long, "a product of Baltimore's streets," who guides kids toward a path of positivity.
"I truly love my city," Long affirms in an interview with Nonfictionfilm.com. "It taught me and my family a whole lot as far as just who we are, how tough we are individually, and it showed us that it's a lot of, lot of great people out there."
Questions of race underpin Crime + Punishment, Stephen Maing's acclaimed documentary about policing in New York City. The director follows a group of officers who challenged the NYPD's policy of pressuring cops to keep up arrest totals (department brass deny such a policy exists). The alleged quota system has made youth of color the disproportionate target of police trying to maintain an acceptable level of "collars."
“From the beginning I saw how this job was,” one officer declares in the film. “It’s not about helping people. It’s about numbers.”
Rounding out the 15 shortlisted docs is Kimberly Reed's Dark Money, which investigates the pernicious influence of untraceable cash on American elections, and the shadowy groups responsible for it.
"If we had different regulations that were in place that discouraged these groups from spending money anonymously, that's the ultimate goal of this [film]," Reed tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "We should know, as voters, who's spending money to support or oppose candidates, and what they're in it for, what their motivations are, what their profit motive is. Because armed with that, that's when voters can determine whether or not there's corruption involved."
Voters--the kind who make up the Academy's doc branch--will narrow the list of 15 remaining Oscar contenders down to a final five nominees. That announcement will come January 22.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.