The Academy has unveiled the 15 titles that have advanced in its feature documentary competition for this year's Oscars. The shortlist, culled down from 145 films that were submitted for consideration, includes Ezra Edelman's epic seven-and-one-half-hour O.J.: Made in America, the ESPN-funded doc about the life and times of O.J. Simpson.
Demonstrating the wide variety of docs, there's Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea, about the wave of immigrants washing up on the shores of Italy, which is also Italy's submission in the foreign-language film contest, and Keith Maitland's Tower, which uses animation to recount the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin.
In addition to O.J., race relations are at the center of Ava Duvernay's 13th, which focuses on mass incarceration in the U.S., and Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, which uses the words of James Baldwin, as spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, to look at the plight of the black man in America.
Alex Gibney, a past documentary feature Oscar-winner for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side, is represented by Zero Days, which looks at the growing threat of cyber warfare. Robert Kenner, who was previously nominated for 2008's Food, Inc, is returning with Command and Control, which looks at the risks involved in America's aging nuclear arsenal. And Roger Ross Williams, who won a short documentary Oscar for 2010's Music By Prudence, made the cut with Life, Animated, the story of an autistic young man who learns to speak because of Disney animated movies.
The eclectic list of movies also includes Otto Bell's The Eagle Huntress, about a young girl in Mongolia training to become an eagle hunter; Nanfu Wang's Hooligan Sparrow, about women's rights activists in China, and Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's The Ivory Game, the Leonardo DiCaprio-exec produced film that presents an expose of the illicit traffic in ivory from elephants' tusks.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, which won the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, follows Anthony Weiner's failed 2013 bid to become Mayor of New York City. James D. Solomon's The Witness revisits the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 in New York City while neighbors allegedly turned a deaf ear. Clay Tweel's Gleason tells of former NFL player Steve Gleason's battle with ALS. And Kirsten Johnson's highly-personal Cameraperson plays like a personal memoir of the people and places she has encountered while shooting documentaries for other filmmakers like Michael Moore and Laura Poitras.
The documentary race has become highly competitive — in part because of new players like Netflix, which fielded 13th and The Ivory Game, and Amazon, which along with Open Road, handled Gleason, which are now competing with existing distributors like Sony Pictures Classics (The Eagle Huntress), Magnolia (Zero Days) and Kino Lorber (Fire at Sea, Hooligan Sparrow and Tower).
And a number of high-profile docs failed to secure a spot on the shortlist: Among them Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno, which explores volcanoes around the world; Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's Amanda Knox, which looks at the case of the American student abroad accused of murder in Italy; and Barbara Kopple's Miss Sharon Jones!, a portrait of the late soul singer.
The Academy's documentary branch will now chose five nominees, which will be announced Jan. 24.
The titles are below:
Cameraperson, Big Mouth Productions
Command and Control, American Experience Films/PBS
The Eagle Huntress, Stacey Reiss Productions, Kissiki Films and 19340 Productions
Fire at Sea, Stemal Entertainment
Gleason, Dear Rivers Productions, Exhibit A and IMG Films
Hooligan Sparrow, Little Horse Crossing the River
I Am Not Your Negro, Velvet Film
The Ivory Game, Terra Mater Film Studios and Vulcan Productions
Life, Animated, Motto Pictures and A&E IndieFilms
O.J.: Made in America, Laylow Films and ESPN Films
13th, Forward Movement
Weiner, Edgeline Films
The Witness, The Witnesses Film
Zero Days, Jigsaw Productions