One of the most unpredictable races in years for the Oscar for Documentary Feature has come down to 15 films, narrowed from a record-breaking tally of 170 qualifiers.
Two films on Syria’s civil war made the cut—Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, about the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, and Feras Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo, about courageous civil defense workers in that city. And two octogenarian filmmakers, both of them winners of honorary Oscars, made the shortlist: 87-year-old Frederick Wiseman, who directed Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, and 89-year-old Agnès Varda, who shared directing duties on Faces Places with 34-year-old artist JR.
The Academy’s Documentary Branch determined the shortlist of 15. Doc branch members will also select the final five nominees, which will be revealed when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 23.
In Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, director Steve James tells the story of the only bank to face criminal charges stemming from the financial crisis of 2008. The defendants were the Sung family, owners of Abacus, a bank that catered to the Chinese-American community in lower Manhattan.
Some observers of the case accused the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of selective prosecution, claiming it demonstrated ethnic bias in going after the Sungs. James essentially agrees. “I don’t think it was overt and explicit, [but] I think there was racism involved,” he says.
Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral documents the impact of climate change on coral reefs around the world, a companion to his 2012 environmentally-themed film Chasing Ice. The film shows how rising ocean temperatures have led to coral bleaching, harming a diverse ecosystem that is home to an estimated 25 percent of all marine life.
Says one scientist in the film, “We live at a unique moment of time where we can change history. It’s not too late for coral reefs.”
Director Matthew Heineman followed up his Oscar-nominated Cartel Land with City of Ghosts, his paean to citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria who struggled to inform the world about ISIS atrocities in their city. A number of them were hunted down and killed by ISIS agents as a result of their reporting.
“It’s an homage to a group of people who have risked everything to fight for the truth, to seek the truth,” Heineman says. “I think that’s an important idea in the world right now.”
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is the latest documentary from 87-year-old Frederick Wiseman, who won an honorary Oscar last year for his extraordinary contributions to nonfiction cinema. His Ex Libris captures the vitality and importance of an institution that has catered to millions of artists, intellectuals and average New Yorkers young and old over the years.
As one New York Public Library official declares passionately in the film, “We do mind-building, soul-affirming, life-saving work.”
For their lyrical film Faces Places, directors Agnès Varda, 89, and the artist JR, 34, crisscrossed France in a van equipped with a photo booth. They encountered factory workers, a postman and other regular people, inviting them to take pictures which they printed in massive format, affixing them to buildings, trucks and other grand surfaces.
The result is a poignant appreciation for the ordinary and for lives sometimes overlooked. “Each face tells a story,” Varda says in the film. “Faces are beautiful.”
Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei traveled to more than 20 countries for Human Flow, his film documenting the immense scale of the worldwide refugee crisis. He spent time in 40 refugee camps, meeting people who have fled war, famine and political upheaval from the Middle East to northern Africa.
“Our reality is so surreal,” he explains. “People have to relocate or escape—to give up everything because they’re facing a life-or-death choice. It’s the only possibility for them to save their children.”
Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk documented former Vice President Al Gore on his continued quest to combat global warming for An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore’s efforts helped produce the groundbreaking Paris climate agreement in 2015, but the election of President Donald Trump has threatened to reverse that progress. “The next generation would be justified in looking back at us and asking, ‘What were you thinking?’” Gore says in the film. “‘Couldn’t you hear what the scientists were saying? Couldn’t you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?’”
Bryan Fogel’s documentary Icarus played an important role exposing Russia’s vast state-sponsored doping program, a scheme that recently prompted the International Olympic Committee to ban the country from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
His main character is Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian chemist who helped implement the doping operation and then blew the whistle on it. “What the film shows beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Fogel says, “is the extent to which Russia is willing to go to assert itself as a world power and to win at all costs.”
In Jane, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett Morgen delves into the life and work of pioneering primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall. He built the film largely from footage of Goodall conducting research on chimpanzees in the wild in Tanzania, material that had sat dormant in National Geographic archives for over 50 years.
Morgen sees the film as a “love story between a woman and her vocation. Goodall kind of rejects the notion of being a feminist icon, which is kind of refreshing—because she is, and her story is so much about empowerment.”
Directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin combed through more than 1,500 hours of archival footage for LA 92, their documentary on the civil unrest that devastated Los Angeles 25 years ago.
They eschewed interviews of people looking back from present-day; by design, LA 92 shows the events as they unfolded. “That was a big thing for us, to remove the middle person and take the filter away and give the audience the benefit of the doubt of diving into it of their own accord,” Martin says. “Because you can’t really argue with the raw footage.”
Last Men in Aleppo plunges viewers into the height of the Syrian Civil War as Russian jets and Syrian government forces bomb the city of Aleppo into near oblivion.
Syrian director Feras Fayyad followed a group of civil defense workers known as the White Helmets in their desperate attempt to rescue victims from the rubble. They put their own lives at risk trying to save injured children and adults. Asks Fayyad: “What motivates the White Helmets? This is my question through the film.”
Long Strange Trip, director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary about the Grateful Dead, clocks in at 238 minutes, the longest of the films to make the Oscar shortlist (Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris tops out at 197 minutes).
Bar-Lev, an avowed Deadhead, sheds new light on the influences that shaped Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, and his artistic process that produced some of rock’s most intricate and revered music.
“I see the film as an exploration of life and death,” Bar-Lev explains. “Jerry had an idea that living is a succession of individual moments. That’s the only thing that actually persists. Everything else evaporates.”
In One of Us, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady take viewers inside New York’s Hasidic community, an insular world rarely explored in film. They focused on three renegades who dared to leave, including a young woman with seven children.
“It is nearly impossible to exit the Hasidic community and start over in the secular world—and some would say that’s by design,” Ewing says. “The community does not take kindly to members leaving.”
You might say director Yance Ford followed a dictum from the late Carrie Fisher for his film Strong Island: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”
Ford explores the devastating impact on his family that resulted from his brother’s death in 1992 in a racially tinged incident. The white man who shot William Ford Jr. was never charged with a crime, despite evidence to suggest the killing was not justified.
“The film is really transparent,” the director says, “about how little the police knew and how little, I think, they bothered to investigate.”
In Unrest, director Jennifer Brea chronicles her own struggle with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), sometimes referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The illness struck her at age 28 as she worked on a Ph.D. at Harvard.
Brea connected with others around the world dealing with ME. Like her, many of them experienced frustration with a medical community that frequently misdiagnoses the condition as a psychiatric problem. “It’s an emotional film, in a way that’s not depressing,” Brea says of Unrest. “It just breaks you open.”