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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Broadgreen Pictures, Meryl Streep and Guy Oseary hosted a reception in West Hollywood to celebrate Song Of Lahore. The 2015 documentary film follows and celebrates the lives of Pakistani musicians, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble as they travel from Pakistan to New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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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.


A new trailer for the Katheryn Bigelow produced documentary, Cartel Land has arrived. Cartel Land won the Best Cinematography and Best Director awards for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

Matthew Heineman directs the documentary that gives its audience a street-level view at the Mexican cartels and the groups standing up to them.

The official synopsis reads:

With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels.

In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona’s Altar Valley – a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley – Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness as Nailer, El Doctor, and the cartel each vie to bring their own brand of justice to a society where institutions have failed. CARTEL LAND is a chilling, visceral meditation on the breakdown of order and the blurry line between good and evil.

Cartel Land opens on July 10 in LA. Check out the trailer below:



We watched the Vietnam war play out on television and the subsequent war narratives built by the media and politicians over the past few decades. So many films have been made about “America’s great failure,” which eventually transformed into the story of how badly the war destroyed the lives of soldiers coming home, not to mention the wreckage inflicted on Vietnam. And yet, most of us still see that war as a series of bad decisions by bad presidents — the one war America never wanted to repeat.  Now, here we are in the last days of Iraq, unable to pull out, our mission having failed spectacularly – Rory Kennedy’s film about the end of Vietnam is a glaring reminder that not only has it happened before but it’s likely to happen again.

Using extraordinary, rare archival footage, Kennedy focuses her documentary on how the war ended, how America left Vietnam and how desperately those who counted on America to win that war needed to escape when we lost. Refugees piled onto freighters in the middle of the ocean. Mothers and their babies jammed into helicopters and dropped onto ships – all in hopes of starting a new life in the United States.   The story here is not only about the brave refugees but about the American heroes who have mostly gone unrecognized in the years since.

By the time South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam it was all over but the shouting. The United States could not rescue any more refugees. Many of them were sent to re-education camps, or killed.  What is so remarkable about the film is that it plays like a suspense thriller. Kennedy features many witnesses to those events but it never feels like talking heads because there is so much real footage of events urgently unfolding it sometimes feels like you’re watching a narrative rather than a documentary.

One never feels lost or confused about what was going on, which is a testament to Kennedy’s skill in assembling all the material. One of the reasons most Americans don’t think much about Vietnam is that so conflicting spins have confused the issues about who or what we were fighting for and why it was considered such a failure. This film more than any other lays it out plainly, and profoundly.

Hollywood has taken us into Vietnam many times before – from Coming Home to Apocalypse Now to Platoon to Born on the 4th of July. We know this war through movies. We know it through movies about presidents. We know it because it is entangled in the Kennedy assassination by conspiracy theorists who believe Kennedy was going to stop the war, which was, according to Oliver Stone, one of the reasons he was killed.  But no one can say what Kennedy would have done or how the war would have ultimately played out. Last Days of Vietnam is not really about who was right or how badly Nixon escalated the bombings — it is about heroes who risked life and limb to get Vietnamese refugees out of a collapsing country.

Kennedy has a firm grasp of structure and story, leaving some of the film’s most shattering moments to occur near the end. It is a film that does what all stories about Vietnam should do – shame those who made the big decisions that ended hundreds of thousands of lives while honoring those who gave their lives for our country and for a cause they felt at the time was worth fighting for.

If it all sounds familiar that’s because Last Days of Vietnam eerily echoes what’s going on in Iraq right now. How we view those events, what we choose to pay attention to or ignore will ultimately define this history we’re living through. What little was filtered through the media back in the 70s is nothing like how little gets through to people now. The problem with 2014 is that so many people have become numbed and apathetic. At least in the 1970s some were still involved and motivated enough to protest the war in large numbers.

America’s involvement with Vietnam was long and deep. Whole families were built there and brought back here.  Watching Kennedy’s film one can’t help but marvel at how little anyone thinks about or cares about Communism now, sold to us as the greatest threat to American life back then. It has faded so dramatically into the rearview the word itself feels like a relic. But Kennedy’s film serves a living memorial to how irrational fear and defense of an empire in the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing can lead to monumental tragedy.

Last Days of Vietnam ends up as a story about bravery more than anything else. In those last days the people who were willing to stick it out to help those left behind reveal the best humanity has to offer in war time. This is a film every American, as citizens of this empire, this democracy must see.

Last Days of Vietnam is one of the best films of 2014.


LOS ANGELES, CA – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced that the field of Documentary Short Subject contenders for the 87th Academy Awards® has been narrowed to eight films, of which three to five will earn Oscar® nominations.

Voters from the Academy’s Documentary Branch viewed this year’s 58 eligible entries and submitted their ballots to PricewaterhouseCoopers for tabulation.

The eight films are listed below in alphabetical order by title, with their production companies:

“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” Perry Films
“Joanna,” Wajda Studio
“Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace,” Show of Force
“The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” Tree Tree Tree
“One Child,” New York University
“Our Curse,” Warsaw Film School
“The Reaper (La Parka),” Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica
“White Earth,” Weary Traveler

The 87th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Thursday, January 15, 2015, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

The Oscars® will be held on Sunday, February 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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I chatted with Jon Scheide about his upcoming documentary, Acts of Congress, which has just begun raising funds on Indiegogo.

Q: How did you get involved in the project?
I created it. It’s the evolution or distillation of my desire to make some sort of statement going back to the all the radical changes that have happened since 9/11. The Patriot Act, American abandoning diplomacy in Iraq and actually throwing the first punch, Citizen’s United, Voter Act and protection law changes, Wall Street breaking the economy, etc.
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I know he’s famous for his writing in addition to his acting. I guess I never figured he was this good of a writer:

Blackfish could’ve easily been yet another monotonous “save the whales” documentary where they give us all the facts about the human-created plights of whales both in and out of captivity. Instead of preaching and using pretty but uninspired long-lens shots of whales frolicking peacefully in the ocean, the documentary, like so many successful action and crime movies, relies on visceral violence in the context of the age-old battle of man versus Mother Nature. This is amplified by the film’s main setting, an amusement park ostensibly designed for parents hoping to instill joyful memories in their young children. Is the severe trauma of a relative handful of impressionable kids worth the happiness of those who were spared what on the surface are lovely ballets of beast and human but under the waves and splashes are constructs of abuse and violence? When you fuck with animals, it’s inevitable that every once in a while the wild underbelly rises to the surface and someone is killed, and sometimes it’s in front of the children! In the age where there are so many choices for entertainment, it’s overwhelming (and one where, as far as I can tell, young children are more entertained by iPads than anything else), do we really need to be training animals for human amusement anymore? I am not here to answer that question, but it’s not going to do you any harm to ponder it and decide where you stand.

The Academy may or may not nominate Blackfish on January 16. That would be using their power wisely. They are not known for such things. The Act of Killing is still the frontrunner but Blackfish just need a nomination. Fingers crossed.

And the nominees are:


The PGA traditionally does not line up with Oscar. Last year only two went on to be nommed for Oscar:

Last year’s nominees and winner:

Winner (also Oscar winner): Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Other Nominees:
A People Uncounted (2011)
The Gatekeepers (2012)
The Island President (2011)
The Other Dream Team (2012)


At first I didn’t like the way this group of names was arranged on the risers of the red carpet stairway. But on second thought to see celebrity mingled with genius sums up much of what Cannes is all about.

Eight documentary shorts of which five will be selected – and they are:

“CaveDigger,” Karoffilms
“Facing Fear,” Jason Cohen Productions, LLC
“Jujitsu-ing Reality,” Sobini Films
“Karama Has No Walls,” Hot Spot Films
“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” Reed Entertainment
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” Prison Terminal LLC
“Recollections,” notrac productions
“SLOMO,” Big Young Films and Runaway Films

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I don’t get why, in 2013, we are still allowing the practice of training and keeping whales for human entertainment. A new documentary is about to land that no one will want to see. But it is something essential, especially for younger audiences. The more intelligent the animal, the harder it is to keep them in captivity for entertainment or science. Chimps, elephants, whales and dolphins ought to be treated with higher regard for that reason.

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary

Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man)
Kirby Dick (The Invisible War)
David France (How to Survive a Plague)
Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles)
Alison Klayman (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry)

(thanks to Paddy at ScreenOnScreen)

LOS ANGELES, CA (November 30, 2012) – The Producers Guild of America (PGA) announced today the Documentary Motion Picture nominees that will advance in the voting process for the 24th Annual Producers Guild Awards.

The nominated films, listed below in alphabetical order, are:


All other nominations for the 2013 Producers Guild Award categories will be announced on January 3, 2013, along with the individual producers.

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The eight films are listed below in alphabetical order by title, with their production companies:
“The Education of Mohammad Hussein,” Loki Films
“Inocente,” Shine Global, Inc.
“Kings Point,” Kings Point Documentary, Inc.
“Mondays at Racine,” Cynthia Wade Productions
“Open Heart,” Urban Landscapes Inc.
“ParaÍso,” The Strangebird Company
“The Perfect Fit,” SDI Productions Ltd.
“Redemption,” Downtown Docs

From the Academy Award-nominated directors of Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, Detropia premiered September 7 and is showcased in select theaters across the country.

Detroit’s story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century— the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now . . . the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos. With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, DETROPIA sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. These soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.

The New Yorker’s David Denby says, “Detropia, a lyrical film about the destruction of a great American city, is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years.”

It has its share of forlorn images the office buildings with empty eye sockets for windows; the idle, rotting factories with their fantastic networking of chutes, pipes, and stacks. Yet the filmmakers, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (who comes from Detroit), are so attuned to color and shape that they have made a beautiful film. We’re looking at new ruins, American ruins the remains of industrial ambition, a kind of impromptu graveyard of capitalism and the survivors, hanging on, exhibit a mix of awed mournfulness and good cheer. The city’s history is evoked by such chroniclers and guides as George McGregor, a warmly sympathetic union veteran; Crystal Starr, a young video blogger, who breaks into abandoned buildings and installs herself in offices now trashed and empty, as if she had worked there years ago; and Tommy Stephens, a former teacher, who warns of revolution if the middle class continues to be eviscerated. At the end, as young people move in to claim the cheap real estate, the movie hints at a fresh surge of capitalist ebullience and a possible revival.

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An investigative look at America’s war on drugs and its impact on the criminal justice system. Director Eugene Jarecki was Bill Maher’s first guest on Real Time tonight with a message that’s been obscured for decades: The so-called War on Drugs is effectively a War on Minorities, and the causalities of that war are predominantly young Black men

The House I Live In won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance 2012, and will open in limited release on October 5, 2012.

, with a focus on the experiences of Nannie Jeter, a former employee of filmmaker Eugene ‘s family.

Ebert tweets the big news himself.

“Whoa! My memoir has been optioned for a doc by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Steven Zaillian, with Martin Scorsese as exec producer.”

In 1994, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel placed Steve James documentary Hoop Dreams at #1 on both their Top 10 Lists. In 2009 Roger Ebert wrote:

Today, fifteen years after I first saw it, I believe “Hoop Dreams” is the great American documentary. No other documentary has ever touched me more deeply.

So what happened to Hoop Dreams at the Oscars that year? Maybe you know. I hadn’t heard this story before today.

Gene and I saw the film early. We were approached by a friend of ours, the Chicago publicist John Iltis, who didn’t ask us to see a screening, he told us this was a film we had to see. We believed him. We were the only people at the first screening outside Kartemquin. Iltis rented the original auditorium of the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute — which has become, fittingly, the new Siskel Center. When the movie was over we remained in our seats for a minute or two before speaking. Neither one of us had ever seen anything like it.

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