This year’s stand-out runners and riders for the Creative Arts Emmys documentary categories—series and special—tackle the crucial sociopolitical issues of today, investigating everything from the 2016 presidential race, to possible wrongful imprisonment and the significant challenges of growing up trans. It’s an eclectic couple of categories; here are a few of the specials and shows ensuring America’s water coolers are working overtime.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (HBO)
Taking on societal injustice with a documentary every bit as brave and honorable as its subject, director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy found light (and an Oscar) in a visceral, brutal and tragic tale. The subject is Saba, a young Pakistani woman who survives an attempted honor killing by her own father, the consequence of Saba’s love affair with a man of lower class. In the aftermath, the remarkably resilient Saba reaffirms her will to live according to her own heart.
3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (HBO)
Marc Silver’s doc examines the aftermath of a fatal encounter at a Florida gas station, as a black teenager engages in a brief argument with an older white man, and is gunned down suddenly without reason. Following in the footsteps of Sundance breakout Fruitvale Station, Silver’s doc digs into the racial climate of today, and the tragedy of ubiquitous prejudice. The doc was awarded Sundance’s Special Jury Prize For Social Impact.
Under the Gun (Epix)
Premiering just under the wire for Emmys consideration on May 15 is Stephanie Soechtig’s Under the Gun, a potently tragic look at the epidemic of gun violence across America in recent years. Narrated by Katie Couric—and observing the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 20 children—the film examines the reasons behind the confounding stasis in American federal gun regulation, as the body count continues to grow without response.
Growing Up Trans (Frontline // PBS)
Diversity is on everyone’s mind more than ever before, and Growing Up Trans illustrates the challenges faced by transgender children and their families in 2016. A segment of PBS series Frontline, which has been on the air since 1983, the doc was one of 12 PBS programs to receive a Peabody Nomination in April.
The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth (Showtime)
Covering one of the most divisive and theatrical presidential races in history—2016’s—Showtime’s The Circus pulls back the curtain on this political process like never before. Presenting essential figures from this year’s campaigns, including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, the doc digs deeply into the true stories behind the headlines and refocuses in real time, evolving with the race.
Race for the White House (CNN)
Viewing this election year through the prism of what has come before, CNN’s one-hour, six-part series investigates six of American history’s most momentous campaigns for Commander-in-Chief. Covering everything from Andrew Jackson’s ousting of John Quincy Adams from the White House in 1828 to the Clinton/Bush confrontation in 1992, through interviews, dramatic recreations and unseen archival footage, Race for the White House draws parallels and contrasts with presidential campaigning today.
Making a Murderer (Netflix)
In the wake of a runaway water cooler phenomenon—Sarah Koenig’s true-crime podcast Serial—Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s Netflix series Making a Murderer became the must-watch doc series of 2015. An enormous undertaking, shot over the course of ten years, two prison sentences and countless trial proceedings, the show documents the story of Steven Avery and a crime in America’s heartland, where justice is seemingly perverted, and the real culprit may (or may not) be the constabulary.
Jim: The James Foley Story (HBO)
Known primarily for his work in graphic design, second-time doc director Brian Oakes took his second feature to Sundance, as a tribute to a fallen friend. Taking the Audience Award for Documentary, the doc depicts the life, remarkable work, and too-early death of American journalist James Foley, who was killed by ISIS in 2014. The film features significant participation and commentary on the part of the Foley family.
Live to Tell (History Channel)
From executive producer Peter Berg, whose 2013 film Lone Survivor surveyed the path of war, History Channel’s Live to Tell portrays the victories and devastating losses of those serving their country in the United States Special Operations Forces. In the spirit of author Tim O’Brien’s seminal work The Things They Carried, which documented the unreal experience of soldiers in Vietnam, Live to Tell delves into the harrowing realities of American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New Yorker Presents (Amazon)
Debuting at Sundance and picked up by Amazon Studios, The New Yorker Presents is a multimedia smorgasbord, paying tribute to an American monument—the exalted, award-winning magazine The New Yorker—in an abundance of cinematic formats. From Jigsaw Productions, headed by the immensely productive, five-time Emmy award winning documentarian Alex Gibney, The New Yorker Presents features documentaries, narrative shorts, poetry and cartoons from some of today’s leading artists, including Jonathan Demme, Roger Ross Williams and Miranda July.
The Diplomat (HBO)
One of the National Board of Review’s Top Five Documentaries of 2015, David Holbrooke’s The Diplomat celebrates the extraordinary legacy of U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. In his 48-year career, between his work in the Foreign Service in Vietnam and his advising of President Obama on Afghanistan in 2009, Holbrooke left an indelible, singular mark on American foreign policy. Featured in the doc are some familiar faces—Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and others.
Dark Net (Showtime)
From creator Mati Kochavi, Showtime series Dark Net dives into the mysterious, often frightening recesses of the internet, telling the unusual and illuminating stories of a few web users. Covering the vast expanse, Dark Net explores the sometimes inspiring, sometimes disturbing power of the internet and modern technology to connect—and disconnect.
Heart of a Dog (HBO)
In Heart of a Dog, storied multimedia artist Laurie Anderson reflects on the death of her pet—a terrier called Lolabelle. Narrated by Anderson, this haunting, freewheeling doc uses this specific, though universal circumstance to reflect on issues of mortality, memory and the human experience. Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival and embraced by critics, Heart of a Dog was nominated for Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards, and claimed the Lina Mangiacapre Award at the Venice Film Festival.
How to Dance in Ohio (HBO)
Alexandra Shiva’s doc How to Dance in Ohio travels to Columbus, Ohio, where a group of teenagers on the autism spectrum are preparing for a significant American rite of passage—the Spring Formal. Practicing their social skills for weeks, in concert with regular therapist meetings, the youths ready themselves for their big night. A film of wide-reaching resonance, How to Dance engages a segment of the population with specific and daunting challenges, bringing their battles—and their victories—to light.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix)
The director of one of this year’s much-discussed documentaries, HBO’s revelatory and personal Nothing Left Unsaid, two-time Oscar nominee Liz Garbus took her Netflix doc Miss Simone to Sundance last year, opening the festival with a huge reception. One of 2015’s Oscar nominated docs, this portrait of an artist moves through the life of “the High Priestess of Soul”, Nina Simone, a prolific musical artist with a strong presence in the civil rights movement.