No Front-Runner As Documentary Awards Season Kicks In: “Much More Open Field This Year”

National Geographic Creative/ Hugo van Lawick

Usually by this stage of awards season, a couple of documentaries have emerged as solid favorites. Last year, it was O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro. The year before, Amy and The Look of Silence.

This year, it looks like anybody’s game.

“It’s a much more open field this year in terms of what’s being recognized,” Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association, tells Deadline. “There’s a lot of really strong films.”

City of Ghosts Genevieve Jacobson

Five awards-season contenders got a major boost this week when the IDA announced its nominees for Best Feature Documentary: Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, about the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, Syria; Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s Dina, about a woman and her fiancé who are both on the autism spectrum; Faces Places, a rambling tour of rural France by the legendary Agnès Varda and street artist JR; Yance Ford’s Strong Island, the tragic story of his brother’s killing in a racially charged incident; and LA 92, an archival-driven re-examination of the Los Angeles riots by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin.

“It’s recognition from your peer group, which at the end of the day is almost like the icing on the cake,” Martin reflects. “That’s always a good feeling.”

The nominees were selected by a committee composed of an IDA board member, festival programmers, film producers and other leading lights in the documentary field.

“The films all have one thing in common — that’s the vision of a director behind them,” Kilmurry says. “You feel like you’re in the hands of an author with each of these films, making decisions and guiding you through a story or an experience or a place.”

Last year’s IDA nominees included four of the films that went on to secure Oscar nominations: 13thFire at SeaI Am Not Your Negro, and O.J.: Made in America.

But this time around, Kilmurry acknowledges the IDA list can’t necessarily be considered definitive — not in such a wide-open year.

“I think all the films on the list are deserving, but if you brought a different committee together, you might get a slightly different makeup of what ends up nominated,” Kilmurry opines.

In fact, on Thursday night, the second annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards gave its Best Feature honor to Brett Morgen’s Jane, a film that didn’t even make the list of IDA nominees. Best Director was shared by Evgeny Afineevsky for Cries From Syria and Frederick Wiseman for Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Their films didn’t make the IDA cut either. Cries from Syria did win the IDA’s Courage Under Fire Award, though, an honor it will share with City of Ghosts and two other docs about Syria.

Strong Island Netflix
Of the IDA contenders, only Strong Island and City of Ghosts also earned a Best Feature nomination from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. There also was little overlap between the IDA’s list of nominees and the doc nominees announced last month by the Gotham Independent Film Awards — with one exception: Strong Island.

Lindsay and Martin, directors of LA 92, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2012 for their film Undefeated. They’re OK with this being a year of no clear front-runner.

“What’s kind of cool about this is you never know what’s going to happen with each awards show,” Martin says. “Each film has its own merits.”

Historically, the IDA nominations have served as a strong predictor of Oscar fortunes, in both the Best Documentary Feature and Best Short categories. Last year, The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, won the IDA award for Short Doc before going on to do the same at the Academy Awards.

This year, the IDA nominated six shorts: Edith + Eddie, directed by Laura Checkoway; The Fight, by Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw; Long Shot, by Jacob LaMendola; Mr. Connolly Has ALS, by Dan Habib; The Rabbit Hunt, directed by Patrick Bresnan; and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, directed by Frank Stiefel.

Stiefel’s film paints a touching portrait of Mindy Alper, a sensitive woman who has overcome severe depression and anxiety to become a significant figure in the art world.

“She’s an amazing person,” Stiefel shares. “I bring her to as many Q&As as I can because she’s hysterically funny and she really sort of flourishes with that much attention.”

Stiefel, who got into documentary filmmaking in his 60s, has directed only one previous short, Ingelore, about his late mother, a deaf survivor of the Holocaust. Of his IDA nomination, he says: “It’s tremendous. It’s pretty heady stuff, especially for a second film.”

The winners will be revealed December 9 at the 33rd annual IDA Awards, on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. Whether in the end the IDA nominees proved an accurate forecast of the Academy Awards contenders won’t be known until the Oscar nominations are announced on January 23. The shortlist is expected in early December.

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