Four of the most successful documentaries of recent years remain in contention for a prize beyond box office glory—the kind that comes with an Oscar trophy.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Free Solo all made the Oscar documentary shortlist as the Academy culled the list of 166 eligible nonfiction films down to an exclusive 15.
Morgan Neville’s Neighbor, which explores the work of children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, has become the top-grossing biographical documentary of all time with more than $22 million in earnings. RBG, the film directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen that documents Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, started the box office gold rush earlier in the year, amassing just over $14 million.
Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s story of identical triplets who were separated as infants and reunited by accident as adults, has tallied $12.3 million. Free Solo, about mountain climber Alex Honnold’s death-defying ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes, has collected over $10 million so far.
“Alex brought it, so we had to do justice to what he did,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed Free Solo with her husband Jimmy Chin, says. “I think people are very satisfied by watching someone have this audacious dream, and actually achieving it.”
Netflix documentaries scored two of five Academy Award nominations last Oscar season, but the streaming service won’t repeat that feat this time around. Only one of its major contenders made the shortlist, Shirkers, directed by Singapore native Sandi Tan. The film recounts her ambitious effort to make a feature-length horror film as a teenager, a vision that turned into a nightmare when her adult mentor absconded with all the footage.
Releasing on Netflix gave the filmmaker a worldwide platform. “I knew that Netflix would reach these people now in Croatia and Bhutan and small towns in Nebraska. Versions of me,” Tan explains. “I wanted to speak to them and tell them to be brave and just go forth and do it and take them along on this journey with me.”
A shortlist surprise came with the omission of another Netflix documentary, Quincy, a film celebrating music great Quincy Jones that was co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones.
Streaming service Hulu actually outdid its rival Netflix, landing two docs on the shortlist. Crime + Punishment, from director Stephen Maing, exposes an alleged policy within the New York Police Department that forces officers to meet a quota of arrests or face the consequences. Hulu’s other contender, Minding the Gap, directed by young filmmaker Bing Liu, has become one of the most honored films of the year, winning the IDA Award for Best Feature Documentary, among other awards.
Praise for the film—which centers on Liu and two friends in Rockford, Illinois, who gravitated towards skateboarding to escape abusive home life situations—has been a challenge for Liu to assimilate.
“It’s weird,” he admits of the critical attention. “It is not normal. It is the opposite of anything I have ever experienced in my 29 years of life.”
Liu is one of the fresh faces in documentary to make the shortlist. Another is RaMell Ross, director of Hale County This Morning, This Evening. His film, winner of the IFP Gotham Award for best documentary, deploys moving imagery to reveal African-American experience in a rural part of Alabama.
Hale County resists easy definition, and that is the point—to see black lives represented in a holistic fashion and not the stereotypical manner that has proven so destructive and dehumanizing.
Ross describes his goal as “The idea of [creating] a community portrait. It was impossible to write a log line. It was literally impossible to write a synopsis. I talk about the film conceptually and not literally because if you talk about the film literally then that becomes ‘what these scenes are about’ and ‘what this moment means,’ not what your relationship to it is.”
While some first-time filmmakers like Ross were rewarded, a couple of doc legends were left out.
Michael Moore, whose Trump-trashing Fahrenheit 11/9 has earned over $6 million theatrically, didn’t make the shortlist. Nor did Frederick Wiseman, the 88-year-old director of Monrovia, Indiana, his exploration of a pocket of red-state America.
The politically-themed Dark Money, about the nefarious impact of untraceable cash on American elections, earned a spot on the shortlist for director Kimberly Reed. Charm City, from director Marilyn Ness, takes a vérité-style view of downtrodden sections of Baltimore, where violence is commonplace and opportunity elusive.
The director found reason for optimism, as she followed local heroes who work to uplift the community, breaking a cycle of hopelessness.
“I do think the challenges are immense, but they’re not insurmountable,” Ness explains. “I think people who have confronted unimaginable hardship are probably stronger than most of us, and when they walked through the fire, they decided what they were going to harden was love.”
Dark Money and Charm City come from the same producer—Katy Chevigny. Oscar winner Pedro Almodóvar, meanwhile, has put his name behind another of the films to make the shortlist, The Silence of Others. Almodóvar serves as executive producer on the documentary directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, an emotional exploration of the legacy of torture and political murder committed under the reign of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975, there was no “truth and reconciliation”-style commission to heal the nation. Instead, there was a “pact of silence” that precluded the chance for justice. Perhaps unexpectedly, The Silence of Others has emerged as a hit in Spanish theaters.
“It’s become a whole movement where people are bringing their friends, their parents, their neighbors. Screenings are selling out,” Carracedo told Deadline at the IDA Awards, where the film won the Pare Lorentz Award. “Spain is ready to remember. Spain is ready to break that pact of forgetting.”
Several more films with an international focus joined The Silence of Others on the Oscar shortlist. On Her Shoulders, from director Alexandria Bombach, follows Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, a survivor of the genocide of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, who were targeted for destruction by ISIS.
Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki, director of Of Fathers and Sons, posed as a jihadist sympathizer to gain entry into a militant Islamic family in Northern Syria. His main character was Abu Osama, a founder of Al Nusra, the Syrian wing of Al Qaeda.
“The uprising of ISIS and Al Nusra in my homeland was very quick,” Derki notes. “For me really making the film is a step to think about this phenomenon. How it happened, to film the process of it.”
Two other films with an international dimension made surprise appearances on the shortlist, not having received nearly the attention of their competitors. Communion, from Polish director Anna Zamecka, focuses on a teenage girl caring for her “dysfunctional father and autistic brother.” The Distant Barking of Dogs, directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, features another young protagonist, a boy living in Eastern Ukraine as war with Russia envelops his village.
Amazing Grace, a late entrant into the Oscar sweepstakes that enjoyed support from Spike Lee, did not wind up making the shortlist. The film, which takes viewers inside Aretha Franklin’s recording of her live gospel album in 1972, emerged from a 46-year limbo to qualify for Oscar consideration belatedly, missing the opportunity to compete for pre-Oscar awards.
With Amazing Grace and dozens more films consigned to the sidelines, 15 documentaries go forward to the next cutoff point, on January 22. That’s when the Oscar nominations will be announced, narrowing the field to the final five nominees.