Human-Interest Docs: "World's Ugliest Woman," 5-Year-Old Cancer Survivor Among Touching Subjects

Courtesy of SXSW
Lizzie Velasquez

In the wide spectrum of documentary subjects, the ones that touch the heart are often the ones that win trophies.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Six brothers held captive in their New York apartment. A young boy who becomes a superhero. The “world’s ugliest woman” fighting cyberbullying. Some documentaries fire up the mind, some inspire political action — and some of the most memorable touch the heart.

In Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, six brothers mostly confined to their New York apartment by their father, who feared the corrupting influence of the city, confront their isolation by re-creating scenes from such movies as Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight. “It really celebrates the cinema,” says Moselle, who didn’t know of the brothers’ living situation when she first started shooting. “It was almost like casting a movie you hadn’t written yet,” she says of getting to know the boys after meeting them on the street, intrigued by their long hair and intense interest in film. The doc took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Batkid Begins (which New Line will adapt into a narrative feature with Julia Roberts) documents the day in 2013 when the Make-a-Wish Foundation transformed San Francisco into Gotham for cancer survivor Miles Scott, then 5, with Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer, President Obama and thousands of volunteers pitching in to make Scott’s wish come true. “I was looking for something that was lighter, that would engage my children,” says director Dana Nachman, whose other documentaries center on terrorism and child molestation. “My son, who is 8, came on a lot of the shoots with me. He became great friends with Miles; they were just FaceTiming on Halloween.” And in A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story (which found funding on Kickstarter and won an Audience Award at South by Southwest in March), director Sara Bordo follows 26-year-old activist Lizzie Velasquez — who weighs only 63 pounds because of a rare congenital disease — as she campaigns in D.C. for anti-bullying laws.

Not every human-interest story is a tearjerker. Take Meet the Patels, in which Ravi Patel and his sister Geeta chronicle Ravi’s search for a wife with the help of his traditional Indian parents. The My Big Fat Greek Wedding-esque movie took the documentary audience award at the L.A. Film Festival.

Three of the past five features awarded documentary Oscars had a human-interest slant (Undefeated in 2011, Searching for Sugar Man in 2012 and 20 Feet From Stardom in 2013). Why? Nachman thinks it could be because human-interest docs trace the emotional journeys the same way narrative films do, appealing to a wide range of Academy members. “Michael Moore did a speech at the Toronto Film Festival [in 2014] about making documentaries entertaining. I read that speech so many times,” she says. “That’s the spirit of these films. It’s pure entertainment, and it’s true to life.”

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