From Mr. Rogers to the Hell of War: Breaking Down the Oscars' Documentary Feature Shortlist

Courtesy Photos

Sorting through 166 submissions, the Academy's doc branch voted for a shortlist of 15 films — from celebrations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ('RBG') and Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad ('On Her Shoulders') to explorations of what it means to be a man.

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is planning to hand out Oscars in as many as six categories during commercial breaks at the Feb. 24 ceremony at the Dolby Theatre, there could be an uproar if the award for best documentary feature doesn't get a prime spot during the broadcast. That's because in 2018, docs have been genuine crowd-pleasers — with several, especially the biopics, setting box office records — and the most popular are all among the 15 shortlisted films, from which the five nominees in the category will be chosen.

INSPIRING STORIES: A good man, a strong woman and a daredevil athlete get their due

Leading the list is Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the portrait of children's TV host Fred Rogers that has grossed $22.6 million domestically since it was released in June by Focus Features. (The top non-nature doc of 2017, Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, grossed just more than $7 million.) By celebrating Rogers' gentle decency, director Morgan Neville (an Oscar winner for 2013's 20 Feet From Stardom) offers an implicit rebuke to the crudeness of the Trump era, saying of Rogers, "Who is a better advocate for the crucial issues we have in our culture right now about civility and kindness?"

Meanwhile, Betsy West and Julie Cohen's RBG spoke directly to the politics of the moment, with the Supreme Court taking center stage as Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings for a seat on the court played out. Surveying Ruth Bader Ginsburg's career and the legal cases she took on to establish women's equality under the law, the CNN Films production collected $14 million when it was released by Magnolia in May before airing on CNN.

Taking to the great outdoors, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow rock climber Alex Honnold, who works without ropes or safety gear, up the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite in Free Solo. The project, from National Geographic Documentary Films, premiered at Telluride, won the People's Choice Award for Documentary at Toronto and has earned $11.2 million.

COMING OF AGE: Young men — and women — face adult realities in adventurous films

Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers, which Neon released to the tune of $12.3 million, also figures as one of the most popular docs of the year (the CNN Films production begins airing shortly on the cable net). The doc, which hooks viewers like a good novel, tells the story of triplets — separated at birth and raised by adoptive parents — who only learned of one another's existence as college students in 1980, their subsequent media fame and its complicated aftermath.

Communion, winner of the European Film Award for best documentary, hails from Poland, where filmmaker Anna Zamecka documented the life of a 14-year-old girl as, with her mother absent, she tries to hold together her dysfunctional family, caring for her special-needs brother and unemployed father.

The documentary format itself proved endlessly malleable in 2018 as filmmakers confronted the surprises life throws at them. In Minding the Gap, streaming on Hulu, director Bing Liu turns the camera on himself as one of three young men — all avid skateboarders growing up in Rockford, Illinois — dealing with the tough realities of adulthood. The film, along with Won't You Be My Neighbor?, made Barack Obama's list of his favorite movies of 2018.

While it revolves around two other young men over five years, RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening, released by Cinema Guild, takes a different tack, becoming a poetic meditation on black life in the modern South. And Sandi Tan's Shirkers, on Netflix, tries something even more unusual: It's composed of footage for a punkish road film she shot as a teenager in Singapore in the 1980s as she unravels the mystery of why that footage went missing for 25 years.

WAR ZONES: Conflicts from around the world — and the impact they left behind

It's a sad commentary on the state of the world that war — particularly war as seen through the eyes of the children — continues to demand the attention of nonfiction filmmakers. In The Distant Barking of Dogs, Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont takes his camera to Ukraine's Eastern border where the Ukrainian Army faces off against Russian-backed forces. But his chief focus becomes 10-year-old Oleg, who lives with his grandmother in an all-but-deserted village.

Talal Derki — a Syria-born filmmaker who studied film in Athens and is now based in Berlin — returned to his home country to shoot Of Fathers and Sons, Sundance 2018's winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema — Documentary. Posing as a sympathetic war photographer, Derki managed to win the confidence of a fighter in the Nusran Front, a Syrian jihadist group with ties to al-Qaida, as he teaches his young sons to follow in his footsteps.

Almost as if providing an antidote to those films' grimness, Alexandria Bombach, winner of a Sundance directing award, tells the more heartening story of Nadia Murad in On Her Shoulders. A survivor of the 2014 massacre of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, by Islamic State forces in North Iraq, Murad became a human rights activist who travels the world speaking out against mass killings and on behalf of refugees. In 2016, she addressed the United Nations opening assembly, and this year she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Congolese physician Denis Mukwage for "their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict."

While those conflicts have yet to be resolved, The Silence of Others, directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, looks at the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939, and the near-40-year dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain in its wake until his 1975 death. The film follows survivors of that era as they campaign on behalf of the memory of the victims of the Franco regime and attempt to bring to justice former government officials suspected of human rights abuses.

POLITICS AND JUSTICE: Analyzing dissension on the street and at the voting booth

Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11/9, which explores Donald Trump's rise to power, didn't make the shortlist cut, but that doesn't mean the documentary branch has abandoned political films. For example, Kimberly Reed's Dark Money, from PBS, examines the money from anonymous donors pouring into elections in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling.

As if taking up where HBO's The Wire left off, Marilyn Ness' Charm City, from PBS, documents three years on the streets of East Baltimore, which has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, as community organizers, cops and regular folks try to stem the violence.

Policing, and its abuses, is at the center of Stephen Maing's Crime + Punishment, also appearing on Hulu, which won a special Sundance award for social impact. The film zeroes in on the NYPD 12, a group of officers who sued the NYPD for pressuring them to meet illegal arrest quotas. And, possibly in reaction to the doc, the NYPD instituted a mandatory "no quota" training for all its officers shortly after the film's Sundance debut.

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Small Stories, Big Impact 
By Rebecca Ford

The refugee crisis and gang violence highlight the heavy topics taken up by 10 shortlisted doc shorts 

Black Sheep

The 27-minute film, following a black 11-year-old whose family moves him from London to the white suburbs, explores ethnicity and identity.

End Game

Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman visit "graceful death" medical facilities.

Lifeboat

The refugee crisis is explored via a rescue mission on the Mediterranean. 

Los Comandos

The captains of the emergency medical unit in El Salvador battle the country's gang violence.

My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes

Charlie Tyrell sifts through his late father's things to learn more about him.

A Night at the Garden

Marshall Curry uses archival footage to revisit a 1939 rally of 20,000 Nazi supporters at Madison Square Garden.

Period. End Of Sentence.

This short about women in India fighting the stigma of menstruation is backed by veteran awards strategist Lisa Taback; she and her daughter served as producers on the film.

63 Boycott

Chicago's 1963 racial segregation protest is surveyed through previously unseen footage.

Women of the Gulag

Survival stories from Russia's Soviet- era labor camps.

Zion

Zion Clark, born without legs, aims to become a high school wrestler.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.