Everything You Need to Know About This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Documentaries


The 88th Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Chris Rock, is set to air on February 28. While most of the attention during awards season is centered on the major categories, like Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor/Actress, we’d like to highlight some of the too-oft ignored nominees, staring with Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short. Here’s everything you need to know about the ten films up for Oscar gold.


British singer Amy Winehouse, a six-time Grammy® winner who died at the age of 27 in 2011 from the cumulative effects of substance abuse, had a turbulent life after her powerful singing voice was discovered and she was propelled to fame. Her strong personality, complicated marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil and love-hate relationship with the press are reflected in her music.

—Asif Kapadia previously directed the 2010 doc Senna , about the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna.

—The film contains unseen footage and tracks from the artist. A few of the previously unheard songs featured in the film include: ”Stronger Than Me,” “In My Bed,” “What Is It About Men?,” “Detachment,” and “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.”

—Mitch Winehouse was upset with the way Amy was portrayed in the film. “Half of me wants to say don’t go see it. But then the other part of me is saying maybe go see the videos, put your headphones in and listen to Amy’s music while they’re watching the videos. It’s the narrative that’s the problem,” he said. Winehouse also felt he was portrayed in a negative light and threatened legal action until limited edits were made. Last summer, Winehouse and Amy’s former fiancé Reg Traviss said they were in talks regarding their own movie about Amy’s life.

Cartel Land

On opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, two vigilante groups led by men staunch in their belief that they are saving their countries, fight against Mexican drug cartels. In Arizona, military veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, while in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles organizes the citizens rising up against the Knights Templar cartel.

—This was director Matthew Heineman’s first time in a conflict zone.

—“Suddenly I was alone with my camera in the middle of this shootout, too scared to process how dangerous it was — I just focused on my craft, on exposure, framing, and technique. I don’t know anything about being in a shootout, but I know how to film — so I did,” Heineman told the Guardian.

—Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) is the film’s executive producer. Watch an interview Bigelow conducted with director Matthew Heineman that aired on Vice.

The Look of Silence

Optometrist Adi was born after the 1966 murder of his brother during the genocide in Indonesia. Burdened by his parents’ sorrow, Adi has led a quiet life ruled by fear of the government until he learns the identities of his brother’s killers. Adi confronts the men and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions, thereby ending five decades of silence.

—Variety reported: “The film—which was co-directed by Christine Cynn and someone who, like many members of the crew, has been forced to remain anonymous in order to protect their safety—is available for free online in Indonesia, where it has become such a phenomenon that it prompted an Indonesia’s spokesman to defensively compare the killings to the history of slavery in the United States, which was a shocking (albeit backhanded) admission of guilt for a government that would rather pretend that it never orchestrated the slaughter of nearly 1 million people.”

—The film’s sound design was extremely important to director Joshua Oppenheimer and is a highlight of the film: “I was fundamentally trying to immerse you physically, emotionally, spiritually, poetically, sensorially, and in every way in these haunted spaces,” he told Slate. “I wanted to make you feel what would it be like to have to live for a whole lifetime in this haunted space under the shadow of the still-powerful killers. From there, everything in the sound design follows.”

—Werner Herzog is one of the film’s executive producers.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

In addition to being a recording artist and powerful presence at her concerts, singer-songwriter Nina Simone was a civil rights activist. With Simone’s determination to live a life of honesty in which her music and politics were paramount, her relationships with her family, friends and collaborators were complicated and frequently difficult.

—The film was released by Netflix.

—Director Liz Garbus and her team were editing the movie during the Ferguson riots: “We were in our edit room when the events of Ferguson were unfolding. It reminds you that the struggle is ongoing and that her music and her words are as necessary and as relevant as they were then.”

—Watch an interview with Garbus, who previously directed the 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, about chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

Winter on Fire

During three months in 2013 and 2014, student demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan Square developed into a revolution by diverse groups of people calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. Hoping for stronger ties to the European Union, protesters fought against government military forces to oppose Yanukovych’s efforts to ally with Russia.

—Composer Jasha Klebe previously worked on blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel.

—Some of the film’s interviews were shot in the middle of protests: “Some of the interviews were done at the Maiden, on the fly. You see them…you can see in the movie it was during the protest. One of my guys filmed him, and it just happened spontaneously. We have another couple of interviews that we did on the fly in the battles because we wanted to get this feeling of why people were here, why people are standing here particularly under the bullets and what they want to achieve. So some of these moments were done spontaneously, during the events.”

—Ukrainian people responded positively to the movie: “Ukrainian people are really looking forward to this movie, they are all excited,” Afineevsky said. “It is a very important moment in history to show that people are the power, the people are the power not the government.”

Body Team 12

In Monrovia, Liberia, Garmai Sumo is the only female member of Body Team 12, one of the many teams collecting the bodies of those who died from Ebola during the height of the 2014 outbreak. Despite the perilous nature of her job and the distrust with which she is often met, Garmai remains dedicated to her work.

—Olivia Wilde is one of the film’s executive producers.

—”The winning film is a spiritual and inspiring story of personal courage and commitment. The filmmaking team takes us on a fearless journey that restores our faith in humanity and inspires viewers to be optimistic despite facing the most extreme challenges,” the Tribeca Film Festival jury said of the film.

—”We wanted to tell this story because we wanted it to be a tribute to Garmai’s bravery and the bravery of her teammates, and all the Liberians who risked everything for their countrymen, for their children, and for the world at large,” said director David Darg.

Chau, beyond the lines

Chau, a teenager living in a Vietnamese care center for children born with birth defects due to Agent Orange, struggles with the difficulties of realizing his dream to become a professional artist and clothing designer. Despite being told that his ambitions are unrealistic, Chau is determined to live an independent, productive life.

—”As I finished this film, what I saw and began to believe was the truth of the unconquerable human spirit. I focused on Chau’s story because of the relentless pursuit for his dream to be an artist. He taught me to hope in a world where, most often than not, there is a lack of such. If we could all look at the larger picture, focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have, perhaps our seemingly impossible dreams would be actually within our reach,” director Courtney Marsh wrote in a statement.

—Filming took over eight years, capturing Chau as a teen into his early 20s.

—The film was self-financed (with producer Jerry Franck) and additionally funded by grants and donations. Marsh worked part-time as a Lyft driver to help raise money.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Thirty years after the release of the documentary SHOAH, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann discusses the personal and professional difficulties he encountered during the more than 12 years it took to create the work. Lanzmann also discusses his relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and his teenage years spent fighting in the French Resistance during World War II.

—The 1985 film Shoah is a documentary about the Holocaust and includes interviews with survivors, witnesses, and German perpetrators (often filmed using a hidden camera, in secret). The movie’s running time is over nine hours long.

—Lanzmann was a friend of Sartre’s and a lover and friend to De Beauvoir.

—Lanzmann is the current editor of the journal Les Temps Modernes, founded by Sartre and De Beauvoir.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Every year, more than 1,000 girls and women are the victims of religiously motivated honor killings in Pakistan, especially in rural areas. Eighteen-year-old Saba, who fell in love and eloped, was targeted by her father and uncle but survived to tell her story.

—Director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy was the first Pakistani to win an Academy Award (for her short documentary Saving Face, about several acid-attack survivors).

—Chinoy was named one of Time Magazine‘s most influential people in the world in 2012.

—The documentary was co-produced with HBO.

Last Day of Freedom

When Bill Babbitt realized that his brother Manny had committed a crime, he agonized over the decision to call the police, knowing that Manny could face the death penalty but hoping he would instead receive the help he needed. Manny, an African-American veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, suffered from PTSD and had found it difficult to obtain healthcare.

—There are 32,000 drawings used to compose the animation in the 31-minute film.

—Manny Babbitt was awarded a Purple Heart medal while he was on death row.

—Watch a making-of documentary, below.