Documentary Feature

There are several documentaries worth checking out when the AFI rolls out its docs program June 22, 2026, like Alex Gibney’s eagerly anticipated Zero Days. Shown at Berlin, Zero Days appears to be another knockout from Gibney, one of our finest documentarians.

The spotlight screenings of Newtown and Audrie and Daisy also look interesting. Newtown will be a tough sit, no doubt, one of the most shameful and unforgettable tragedies in our history. Having screened already at Sundance, Newtown has already received positive reviews. Who knows how many of these movies will run the gauntlet and emerge Oscar nominated, but this might be one of the places to start. With the Cannes Film Fest starting in mere days, there might be some docs showing there that could make it to the big show, like last year’s winner Amy did.

If you’re in the LA area, check it out. Tickets to AFI DOCS, including Galas and Spotlight Screenings, will be available to AFI members exclusively from May 9–17, and to the public on May 18. Passes for AFI DOCS 2016 are now on sale at AFI.com/afidocs.

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It’s understandable that in the major categories, there is a distinct lack of inclusion of minority actors, specifically the black actors who really did turn out some of the best work of the year, specifically Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Tessa Thompson in Creed, for that matter, and the list goes on and on. So yes, this New Yorker cover, and the great majority of media covering the Oscars will have this story front and center. Try as some of us did ahead of time to warn them this would be “the story,” it didn’t matter in the end because the voters mostly do what they’re comfortable doing on an anonymous ballot.
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imageA24 held a special screening of their Oscar nominated documentary “Amy” Saturday at the London Hotel in Hollywood  for Los Angeles area rehabilitation centers, including The Betty Ford Clinic, The Friendly House, and The Clare Foundation, among others.

Following the screening, the Q&A with Nick Shymansky, Amy Winehouse’s former manager and friend, was moderated by Dr. Drew Pinsky (Celebrity Rehab, Loveline) and offered an up close, in-depth look at addiction. With most of the audience consisting of current and former patients of addiction treatment, the informal Q&A served as a forum of discussion about the pitfalls of addiction and the steps toward action to help those afflicted with the chronic, relapsing condition. Shymansky was forthcoming about his personal experiences in trying to help Amy, and the institutional and interpersonal failures that led to Amy’s death.

Check out out these pictures from the Q&A.

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In 2012’s The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer explored the mass genocide in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966, exposing the horrors of that regime. In this year’s The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer profiles Adi Rukun, a man born soon after the massacres, who confronts the perpetrators who killed his brother during that time.

We’re honored to share this interview with Oppenheimer and Rukun as they discuss the fears they faced to make this film. The Look of Silence is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Read how the Indonesian government has reacted to the film.

The interview closes with a statement from Adi Rukun.

Awards Daily: OK, let’s get back to how you and Adi Rukun met.

Joshua Oppenheimer: In 2001, 2002, I was helping to teach a group of plantation workers on the same oil plantation where Adi’s family lived. I was teaching them how to make a film about how to organize a union in the aftermath of a military dictatorship under which unions were illegal.

It was a Belgian-owned company, where they made the women spray the pesticides and the herbicides because they said it was easy and the women didn’t have any protective clothing. Women in their forties were dying from liver failure. The workers had confronted the company to ask for protective clothing, and the company met those demands by hiring paramilitary to threaten and attack the workers who dropped their demand. They explained that there had been a mass killing in 1965 and their parents and grandparents had been killed by the same paramilitary. I realized what was killing these women was not just poison but also fear. Continue reading…

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Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking

  • The Look of Silence, Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen

Outstanding Achievement in Direction

  • Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence

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Just as fiction has been expanding the narrative barriers and experimentation this decade, so has non-fiction – maybe even more so. With the advancement of social media comes a generation of people with the desire to capture each and every key milestone of their lives on their phone or tablet or other device.  As such, the wealth of first-hand material we will be getting in the years to come will no doubt facilitate and advance the way documentaries can tell a story and shape their narratives. In essence, everyone at the moment is working on their own little documentary of their lives, many without even realizing it, and the wealth of media that one person from this generation can amass in a lifetime will be very much part of the trajectory that fiction and non-fiction films will follow in the next 30-40 years. This is why a documentary like “Amy” or a movie like “Tangerine” – shot on an iPhone – might just represent the most ground-breaking film events of the year. They will no doubt inspire many to follow in their footsteps. The following seven 2015 docs are but a few of many examples of an extraordinary year in non-fiction cinema.

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Gregory Ellwood calls Look of Silence the “Oscar frontrunner,” but I’m not so sure about that. The Oscar doc branch is a strange and unpredictable bunch. The last Joshua Oppenheimer doc did not win because Twenty Feet from Stardom did (Weinstein Co.) Last year Weinstein Co. took the season with the Edward Snowden capture, CitizenFour. This year, Oppenheimer’s film will be going up against Fox Searchlight’s doc, He Named Me Malala — and her message of hope could resonate, even if the film itself is not a critics’ darling, or popular with the documentary committee. It isn’t that they go for the most popular documentary (in this case, that might be Amy or Meru). It’s that they tend to orbit in their own documentary branch bubble. It is neither here nor there but can be hard to predict.
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“Amy,” On the Corner Films and Universal Music
“Best of Enemies,” Sandbar
“Cartel Land,” Our Time Projects and The Documentary Group
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Jigsaw Productions
“He Named Me Malala,” Parkes-MacDonald and Little Room
“Heart of a Dog,” Canal Street Communications
“The Hunting Ground,” Chain Camera Pictures
“Listen to Me Marlon,” Passion Pictures
“The Look of Silence,” Final Cut for Real
“Meru,” Little Monster Films
“3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets,” The Filmmaker Fund, Motto Pictures, Lakehouse Films, Actual
Films, JustFilms, MacArthur Foundation and Bertha BRITDOC
“We Come as Friends,” Adelante Films
“What Happened, Miss Simone?,” RadicalMedia and Moxie Firecracker
“Where to Invade Next,” Dog Eat Dog Productions
“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” Pray for Ukraine Productions

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The films nominated for the Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures are listed below in alphabetical order:

AMY
THE HUNTING GROUND
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
MERU
SOMETHING BETTER TO COME

Watch the trailers below the jump.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK--OCT. 3, 2010--Performance artist Laurie Anderson will perform her multimedia work "Delusion" at UCLA on Oct 21, 2010. One of the pieces she performs is about her dog Lolabele. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Raising awareness for any film is always a good bet where the Oscars are concerned. Getting any buzz whatsoever can help raise a film’s profile and thus, maybe help it make some money, or give the director some PR clout to take with him or her the next time around. There doesn’t seem to be any gender push-back in the documentary category where women are concerned. Debra Granik says it best in this Variety story about women directors in the documentary genre, “The gender thing gets removed for me when it comes to the documentary world.  There are completely very different standards. You aren’t dealing with whether someone is beautiful or attractive enough or worthy enough or financeable enough. With all of those impediments to moving forward taken away, it’s freeing.”

Granik directed Winter’s Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career and earned a Best Picture nod,  yet she never got carried into the golden city on the shoulders of giants out of that success. Instead, she languished trying to make the next thing happen. Finally, she turned to making the doc Stray Dog, one of the 100 some odd documentaries contenders headed into the Oscar race. From those riches, only five will be selected. The interesting thing about this year is that there appear to be not only more women than ever, but more high profile docs directed by women than ever.

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I was driving my daughter to school the other day. She’s 17 and getting ready to graduate high school. She is aware of sexual assaults on college campuses – hell, just watch The Hunting Ground to see how bad it can get. As much as she knows about the topic, as much as we’ve talked about violence against women elsewhere in the world, she was unprepared for the story of Jyoti Singh, a twenty-three year old medical student in Delhi in 2012. When I told her what happened to Singh, my daughter burst into tears as anyone would upon hearing the story. She was angry at me for ruining her day. But I told her – and I don’t even know if I’m right about this – that hearing her story is the least we can do. It’s the least we can do so that she did not die for nothing. The brutal attack against her is made softer in news stories of the incident. They say she was “disemboweled” instead of: “the asshole reached up inside her and pulled out her intestines so that no doctor could even figure out what was gone or what to put back together.” With nothing to be done, Singh died in the hospital a few days after her attack. At least she was able to say goodbye to her parents.
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It all started with one movie. The Blackfish documentary blew the lid off of SeaWorld’s treatment of Orcas, creatures we know have deep family bonds and high intelligence, yet have been taken from the wild and turned into entertainment for unworthy humans. Public pressure from high profile celebrities and hundreds of thousands of activists has forced SeaWorld to face up to what they’ve done in the name of high profit. They’ve been forced to end their breeding program and now have announced they will stop making these wondrous creatures “perform” for the masses. They will now show their whales in a “more natural” setting. It’s a hell of a start. They won’t be able to take whales from the wild, and they can’t breed them, so all they have remaining are these poor whales who will have to live out their miserable lives in semi-peace. If it were me I would turn SeaWorld into a sanctuary for abused whales worldwide and turn my company into one that helps free other Orcas from captivity around the world. No, they can’t just let them loose in the wild but they could find a way to help them rehab back into the wild. Hopefully they will.

Supposedly they’re ending the shows in 2017. They should be ended today. The whole thing should be shut down.

It all started with Blackfish, the most powerful documentary I’ve ever seen that had such a direct impact. The Academy could not be bothered to nominate the film (of course) but it remains a major success story for the power of cinema nonetheless.

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The MPAA has it in for Michael Moore and has slapped his films with R rating going back all the way to Roger & Me. What for? There has never been any sense to it. Moore is fighting back by refusing to accept their R rating and asking for an appeal decision. Press release as follows:

MICHAEL MOORE REJECTS MPAA’S “R” RATING
FOR HIS LATEST COMEDY, “WHERE TO INVADE NEXT”

NEW YORK, NY (November 2, 2015) – Academy Award® winner Michael Moore announced today that he will reject the “R” rating the MPAA assigned to his latest comedy, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT. The ratings group cited Moore’s film “for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity.” Tom Quinn, Jason Janego and Tim League, who are distributing the film, join Moore in his appeal. Moore’s new comedy WHERE TO INVADE NEXT will open in New York and Los Angeles on December 23rd.
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It’s really time to expand the Doc race to ten, for goodness sake. There are so many more good and eligible films that are worthy, far more than the Best Picture race even. Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next is getting an Oscar qualifying run.

Fun fact: Steve Jobs by Alex Gibney could be nominated alongside Steve Jobs by Danny Boyle.
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Back when I was coming of age I was thunderstruck by this odd creature Laurie Anderson – a “performance artist,” she was called. She spiked her hair out from her round face, which was marked by two very deep dimples on each side of her apple cheeks. With an impish expression she would flatly deliver words and music that took you places.

“When love is gone, there’s always justice.
when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And force is gone, there’s always mom.
Hi mom! 

So hold me, mom.
In your long arms.
In your automatic arms.”

I’d never seen anyone like her then and unfortunately, there isn’t anyone out there like her now. When Madonna swept in with her legs spread eagle sex became the way to provoke and that’s not changed, not in mainstream music anyway. Laurie Anderson was out there, though. She was a popular force and she did it without ever once using her sexuality. It is unheard of now, when even Taylor Swift has to show off the goods for her most in-depth interviews. Women who want people to listen to them must open their legs a little.

Laurie Anderson’s words, music and art with her invented instruments and her electric violin embedded, making permanent marks. I hadn’t heard from her in a while, not since Strange Angels captivated my time and attention. Thus, I’d almost forgotten what a creative force she was when I sat down to watch “Heart of a Dog,” her ode to her dearly departed little dog Lolabelle.

All at once, Anderson lost both Lolabelle and Lou Reed, her partner for twenty years. Heart of a Dog is as much about losing Lou Reed as it is about Lolabelle but that’s never made obvious, of course. It’s just there – this echo of grief, grief that longs to transform. She ties this in with the way New York changed after 9/11. She ties it in with primal fear of being killed, Lolabelle’s and hers.

Anderson the artist uses paintings and blurred images to convey the emotional content, that has to be adorned by that voice. Anderson’s voice is one of her most effective tools at provoking the listener, either with a flatline monotone or on occasion, changing the octave to sound like a man. She does not do this here. Here, she wants us to listen to what she is saying and what she is saying is quite personal, direct, her journey towards the end with her beloved dog laid bare.

In Heart of a Dog, Anderson gives us the gift of also knowing Lolabelle. Lolabelle, the rat terrier who was taught to paint and play the keyboard after she went blind. Lolabelle, the ever watchful hiking guard. Anderson gives us this gift because she learns that in the Tibetan Book of Dead it confuses the dead if we’re sad over them because they think we’re calling them back. Instead, they want us to be happy, to celebrate and to give to others.

Heart of a Dog examines this aspect of letting go in such a beautiful way it might actually change the way you think about death, if you’re someone who obsesses on it, as I do. It would have been impossible for her not to contemplate it after such an enormous loss. Death, in this context, is a way of letting go of love. Thus, the heart of the dog is love. Anyone who has a dog already knows this.

Human beings are in many ways a scourge to this planet, with their only redeeming features being the ones who are trying to undo the damage we’ve caused. There are a few exceptions to this and Laurie Anderson is one of those. Heart of a Dog helps ease the suffering of the unbearable truth we all carry around with us knowing we are going to die. Everyone we know an love is going to die. Our beloved four-legged companions, too, will die.

To say too much about it would be to spoil its discoverable beauty. But here’s to Laurie Anderson and her Lolabelle. Here’s to Lou Reed and New York City. Here’s to them finding each other in the first place. Here’s to the pure love dogs bring us while asking for very little in return. That love should remind each of that the heart of a human is a lot like the heart of a dog if we’d only let it be.

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Apparently there have been some strange goings on at the hands of (what the Church of Scientology is calling) rogue Scientology members hoping to thwart any Oscar hopes for Alex Gibney’s Going Clear. Vanity Fair writes:

The organization’s alleged smear campaign involves making a documentary about and writing a profile of Gibney, according to the Reporter, for which a writer has begun reaching out to members of the Academy’s documentary branch. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy confirmed that she was one of the documentarians contacted by this writer. The writer, however, did not disclose for which publication he was working.

“In this context, to not say [that he wrote for Scientology magazine Freedom] was disingenuous, and I thought something was suspect,” Kennedy said. “He definitely had an agenda.” The Reporter adds that there have been increased aggression and confrontations during Q&As for the documentary in recent weeks.

The Church’s response to Vanity Fair:

When VF.com reached out for comment, Scientology’s media center said, “This is yet another publicity stunt by Alex Gibney to influence awards voting by spinning legitimate criticism of his one-side propaganda. . .Since we found out about a year ago that Alex Gibney had done a film on Scientology, we have been aggressively answering the false allegations in his film because he never presented us with a single one of these lies before release.”

Of all of the things we know about Alex Gibney, desperate need for publicity is not one of those things. He wouldn’t be the first person to claim harassment at the hands of the church.

This Hollywood Reporter story goes into it in more depth, pointing out how defensive church members are and how personally they’re taking Gibney’s film.

And this strange paragraph, which hasn’t been picked up yet by mainstream press:

The increased hostility comes at a tenuous time for the Church of Scientology, which, in addition to dealing with Going Clear, is in the spotlight for its association with Cathriona White, a 28-year-old Irish makeup artist and girlfriend of Jim Carrey who died of a suspected suicide Sept. 28. White, who was found with pills — including Ambien, Percocet, Propranolol and Zofran — had been active in a Scientology-sponsored “Survival Rundown” therapy program, and several mysterious guards were present at her home in the days following her death (though they were gone when THR visited the home Oct. 6). According to former Scientologists, the “SRD” therapy can be destabilizing.

As far as Going Clear’s Oscar chances, never has the doc category been more competitive than it is this year. The members will either be drawn to Going Clear or they will shy away from the controversy brought by the Church of Scientology. Calling members from the doc branch and trying to smear Gibney is a clumsy and awkward way to try to influence Academy members. Their best option here would have been to just lay low. As it is, they’re helping the film every time they act out.

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The premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala had a few false starts as it rolled out for a crowd of about 300 who waited in the rain to see it for the first time. The film is a tribute to Malala Yousafzai’s work but also to the work of her father and her father’s father, which brings with it some of the only controversy the subject has had to endure: did her father put her in harm’s way, is he using her for his own fame? No deed goes unpunished in this world, of course, as you will probably never encounter two more well-intentioned honorable people than Malala and her beloved father.

Many of us know Malala the symbol and not Malala the girl; as a icon, not as a typical teenager with annoying little brothers, homework and a mild but growing interest in boys. This film gives her admirers the chance to see the personal side of Malala, who recovered heroically from a devastating shot to the face from a militant Taliban gunman. Radical Islam is the enemy of educated girls — and boys. Thus her punishment for speaking out against religious oppression was brutal and nearly fatal. Her recovery isn’t the whole story, nor is the Taliban’s intent to murder her and her father. This isn’t a film about the telling of that past but a film about the telling of the future — her future — our future. Malala makes it abundantly clear that one student, one teacher, one lesson, one book can change the world.

All the same, there is a ray of humor that runs through the entire Yousafzai family, evidenced not only in Malala herself but in her brothers and father as well. Her mother doesn’t get near enough screen time — and sometimes it feels like she is not that involved in Malala’s activism. The film pays ample attention to her father who is both a source of security and comfort for her as well as providing some of her motivation and core beliefs. The film’s title, though, reminds us that he might have named her Malala, he might have steered her in the direction of activism, but to give him sole credit for her achievements would be to ignore the most important aspect of her many gifts.

He Named Me Malala is a film made not for masterpiece-hungry critics but rather for everyone else, particularly teachers and students who know that learning more about Malala can inspire us in immeasurable ways, perhaps most importantly in awaking American school children and their parents to the idea that education is to be prioritized, valued, and made more easily accessible.

The most remarkable thing about Malala is her enduring drive to educate herself. She is turned on by knowledge — science, history, politics. Her mind is hungry for more and her father helped instill in her an entitlement to that knowledge. How does the Taliban or any radical Islamic group plan to subvert this drive in the long term? They can’t. Not as long as there is a student, a teacher, a lesson, a book.

Guggenheim’s admiration for his subject is abundantly clear. This isn’t going to be a critical look at Malala — as if. There is an agenda here and one Guggenheim feels passionately about. His last film, Waiting for Superman, was about teachers and the broken public school system in the United States. He Named Me Malala stands in stark contrast because in a world where women are told they are good for nothing but being wives and having babies, and should know nothing but the study of religion, access to even the worst public schools here would be a gift to those who are threatened with death for even contemplating a less repressive life.

He Named Me Malala seemed at first like a strange choice to be the “secret screening” that kicks off the Telluride Film Festival but it moved this audience to tears and applause, which is more than most films in this slot usually do. When Ken Burns led the Q&A after the film, with Guggenheim, Malala’s father and Malala herself via remote, the reason for its position became abundantly clear. One must never forget Telluride’s roots. Pull up one of those roots and you’ll find a kernel of truth Ken Burns planted, a living tribute to the type of wisdom and insight he champions.

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Documentarian filmmaker Michael Moore announced via Twitter that his new film, Where to Invade Next, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. He made the announcement via Twitter.

More Tiff announcements coming later today.

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The documentary category is, once again, filling up quickly. Five slots really can’t possibly account for the abundance of documentaries, most of which are better than the feature submissions in any given year.  Look at the overwhelming number of great titles from last year alone. While it dilutes the excitement and prestige of the awards to have more than five nominees in any category, it also is not a good way of honoring the documentary movement, which has been exploding in recent years.

Nonetheless, three strong contenders for the category have been directed by women and could make this a record-breaking year for women directors nominated in that category.  Debra Granik’s critically acclaimed follow-up to Winter’s Bone, Stray Dog, Liz Garbus’ heartbreaking look at Nina Simone’s life in What Happened, Miss Simone, currently streaming on Netflix, and The Wolfpack, directed by  Crystal Moselle about a group of boys who grew up in a restricted environment where their only outlet was movies. All three films paint dramatically different stories of American life and have all received rave reviews so far.

Stray Dog looks at a Vietnam war vet who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri. His new wife emigrated from Mexico and the two caravan with other vets on an annual pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial in DC.

Other documentaries that are garnering buzz include Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Bryan Carberry & J. Clay Tweel’s Finders Keepers, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, Jimmy Chin and E. Chai’s Meru, among others.

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In this unprecedented look at Amy Winehouse’s early life and commitment to music, bits and pieces of what made her life a painful one bob to the surface.

Watch the trailer here.

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