Oscars: From 'Amy' to 'Winter on Fire,' Documentary Nominees Shine a Light on a Harsh World

Courtesy of Netflix
Nina Simone performing New York’s Westbury Music Fair in 1968 in 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

This year's contenders explore genocide, drug cartels, doomed revolutions and tragic crooners, as their directors reveal the sense of mission that drives them to tell challenging stories.

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

In case anyone needs to be reminded that the world can be a cruel and unforgiving place, we give you this year's Oscar nominees for best documentary feature. The five films chosen as final­ists by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' doc­u­mentary branch offer up a woeful smorgasbord of malice, mayhem and misery.

Government stormtroopers in Ukraine savagely beat hope­ful young protesters in Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom. Townspeople in Mexico rally to fight an unwinnable battle against murderous drug gangsters in Cartel Land. Talented voices — Amy Winehouse in Amy and Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? — falter tragically under the pressures of celebrity, depression and addiction. And that's just some of the feature-length nominees. The documentary shorts — on such subjects as Ebola, the Holocaust, birth defects and Pakistani honor killings — are even more somber.

Tim “Nailer” Foley (left) in Cartel Land, a film about vigilante groups fighting drug traffic on the Mexican border. (MATTHEW HEINEMAN/COURTESY OF TRIBECA)

"It's not that the documentary branch of the Academy likes films that make people feel bad," says director Joshua Oppenheimer, whose nominated doc The Look of Silence — a follow-up to his The Act of Killing, which was nominated for a 2012 Oscar but lost to 20 Feet From Stardom, a film celebrating the work of backup singers — continues to explore the atrocities committed during the mid-1960s by the right wing Indonesian government (as many as 1 million suspected communists were killed). "I think people are longing for films that function as a kind of mirror, not distraction, that reflects back to us our deepest and most important truths."

"It's true that there are some years where we have March of the Penguins and slightly more feel-good stuff," adds Liz Garbus, whose What Happened, Miss Simone? might actually qualify as the feel-good entry of this lot (at least Simone lived to the ripe age of 70, unlike Winehouse, who died at 27). "But in general, documentaries tend to be hard-hitting, and documentarians feel like part of their role is to give voice to the voiceless. Maybe people feel like these stories aren't being told in other places."

There are moments of hope — and even a few heroes — to be found in this year's crop of docs, but no happy endings. Perhaps there's something in the zeitgeist that has documentary-making Academy voters (who picked the five fea­ture nominees that the wider Academy is right now considering) feeling down in the mouth. Or maybe tragedy just makes for more compelling subject matter. After all, a little light shines brightest in the darkest places. Even the uplifting tight­rope-walking documentary Man on Wire, which won the Oscar in 2008 (and inspired Robert Zemeckis' fictionalized 2015 version The Walk), derived much of its poignancy from the fact that the World Trade Center's twin towers were destroyed in 2001. "You need conflict," says Garbus. "You need antagonists. Those are what you look for in a good three-act structure."

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom chronicles the 2013-14 Kiev protests that lasted 93 days and resulted in the deaths of 125 people. (COURTESY OF NETFLIX)

On occasion, you also need guts. To make Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman embedded himself into vigilante groups fighting drug-connected organized crime in Arizona as well as in Mexico ("We're regular people who are standing up — we're sick and frickin' tired," one of the vigilantes tells Heineman when explaining his mission). The filmmaker spent close to a year gaining the trust of members of these groups as well as some on the other side. The film opens with a Mexican meth cooker mixing chemicals in a pitch-dark lab, confessing to the camera: "We know what harm we do with all the drugs. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we'd be like you, traveling the world or doing good jobs."

Heineman was filming in the streets when the crime-fighters he was embedded with declared war on a small town of thugs from the Knights Templar cartel, which had been torturing and murdering villagers. In one par­ticularly harrowing scene, he finds himself in the crossfire of a live shootout. "It was a completely terrifying film to make," says Heineman. "Literally being in the line of fire. Being among groups with com­­pletely shifting allegiances or unclear allegiances. There are countless times I was surrounded by masked men trying to take my camera away, threatening me."

A Hollywood ending was never going to happen with this subject matter. The drug war, believes Heineman, is intractable on both sides of the border. "Tidying up the story and putting it in a nice little box was something I never wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to revel in the murkiness."

This photo from Amy shows the singer (right) with her longtime friend Juliette Ashby. (COURTESY OF SUNDANCE)

Oppenheimer had a few close calls of his own while filming The Look of Silence — as he did with The Act of Killing, in which Indonesian gov­ernment officials proudly boasted in front of his cameras of killing and torturing accused communists. Although the film includes interviews with many of the same officials from his first movie, this time he takes a much more personal look at the atrocities, following a brave optometrist named Adi as he interviews the powerful men involved in his brother's killing, hoping they'll show some sign of remorse so that he can finally forgive them. They don't seem ready to apologize for anything, however, and instead accuse Adi of bringing up old "politics" and threatening him to be careful with his questions.

"We were prepared to run away at any moment," recalls Oppenheimer. "We took many safety precautions, including having Adi's family at the airport waiting to evacuate if anything went wrong."

Yet Oppenheimer finds compassion amid the horror. "As much as it takes place in the aftermath of a genocide — and the terrible injustice of the fact that the perpetrators remain in power — what makes the film affecting is the humanity of Adi," says the director. "The dignity and love through which the family, despite impossible circum­stance, has managed to survive."

There also is much dignity on display in Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter on Fire, which chronicles the peaceful student protests at a public square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev during the winter of 2013-14 and follows them as they escalate into deadly violence after police repeatedly attack pro­testers. Over the course of 93 days, civilians endured tear gas, bullets and beatings that killed 125 people, as Russian-backed Ukrainian leaders attempted to quell civil unrest. The police state tactics had precisely the opposite effect, igniting the demonstration into a full-blown revolution as outraged civilians joined the protest. Afineevsky almost was able to give his documentary a happy ending, with his cameras capturing the moment Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down and fled the country. "They won," says the filmmaker. "The price was big, the price of human lives, but they won." Still, as the film's ending title cards point out, the fight for freedom in Ukraine is hardly over. Russia later annexed Crimea in Southern Ukraine, while pro-Russia protests in Ukraine escalated into ongoing violence.

A scene from The Look of Silence, about an Indonesian optometrist seeking to forgive his brother’s killers. (COURTESY OF DRAFTHOUSE FILMS)

Asif Kapadia's Amy is one of three 2015 documentaries about gifted musicians who all died, in a grim coincidence, at age 27 (the non-nom­inated others are Amy Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue and Brett Morgen's Cobain: Montage of Heck). Before her death, Amy Winehouse's substance-abuse problems and erratic behavior made her a tabloid punch line — something Kapadia believes might have pushed her over the edge. "She wasn't always messed up or, how a lot of people often described her in the U.S., a trainwreck," he says. Footage in his film shows her as a funny, goofy kid with a golden voice. "There's kind of a twinkle in her eyes," notes the director. "I suppose that's the sadness of what comes later."

Kapadia included a one-minute montage in the film that shows late-night comedians and other entertainers mocking Winehouse's substance-abuse problems. "That sequence could have been half an hour long," he says. "She was just a kid who needed help. I suppose I wanted to make peo­ple think just a little. It's too late for Amy. But when this happens again — and it will happen again to someone else — do we protect them a bit? Do the people around them kind of pull them out of the limelight rather than saying, 'One more show, one more gig, one more interview, because it's good for your career?' "

Amy uses the singer's music and lyrics as part of the storytelling, as does Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone, an ear­thy singer and pianist whose soulful sound was influenced by jazz, folk, gospel and classical music, rose to prominence during the civil rights era. She became politicized by the struggle, recording rebellious songs such as "Mississippi Goddam" that had the effect of derailing her mainstream career. She grew increasingly mil­itant. A scene in the documentary shows her onstage asking a crowd, "Are you ready to kill if necessary?" She later was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and by the mid-1970s faded from the limelight. The film sees her making a slow comeback that ultimately finds her rediscover­ing the joy of her musical talent, until her death in 2003.

Among this year's glum batch of nominees, it's practically a musical comedy.