From 'O.J.' to 'Weiner': Directors of 10 of 2016's Top Documentaries Tell All

This year, 145 documentary features qualified for consideration for the best documentary feature prize that will be presented at the 89th Oscars on Feb. 26. Before a winner is crowned, though, the Academy's documentary branch must first pick a shortlist of 15 films (voting spanned from late October through Tuesday) from which five nominees will be chosen (nominations in all categories will be revealed on Jan. 24). Since few doc branch members have the time to see all of the eligible titles, the Savannah Film Festival, for the past three years, has offered a little bit of help by highlighting 10 standouts as part of its "Docs to Watch" sidebar and then inviting each film's director or directors to participate in a 90-minute panel that I have the privilege of moderating.

At this year's festival, the panelists who came together on Oct. 23 were Andrew Rossi on behalf of The First Monday in May, a film about the Met Gala; Clay Tweel of Gleason, a film about a former NFL star now battling ALS; Kief Davidson, an Oscar nominee for 2012's Open Heart, and Richard Ladkani for their The Ivory Game, a film about those seeking to harm Africa's elephants; Roger Ross Williams, an Oscar winner for 2009's Music by Prudence, with his Life, Animated, a film about a young man who emerges from the throes of autism thanks to animated movies; Barbara Kopple, an Oscar winner for 1976's Harlan County, USA and 1990's American Dream, for Miss Sharon Jones, a film about the singer's battle with cancer; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Oscar nominees for 2006's Jesus Camp, representing Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, a film about the past and present work of the TV icon; Adam Irving for Off the Rails, a film about a man with Asperger syndrome whose obsession with trains has repeatedly landed him in jail; Ezra Edelman, who directed O.J.: Made in America, about the trial of the century and what led up to it; Keith Maitland for Tower, a film about one of America's first campus shootings; and Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg with Weiner, their film about the talented politician whose 2013 New York mayoral run ended in disgrace.

Over the course of the gathering, the filmmakers discussed how they first came to their subjects (Irving, who had never previously made a film, stumbled upon an article) or how their subjects came to them (Sharon Jones' manager pitched a doc to Kopple, Anna Wintour's office approached Rossi). Some talked about working with subjects who were cooperative (ex-congressman Anthony Weiner let the cameras continue rolling even as his life collapsed around him) or who weren't (O.J. Simpson refused a jailhouse interview), and how they balanced fondness for their subject (Ewing and Grady came to adore Lear) or even dependence on a subject (Ladkani says he and Davidson were "under the protection of our subjects") with the goal of objectivity.

Some said they had tons of footage from the moment they embarked on their project (Tweel had to cull through 1,300 hours of already-shot footage), others had to try to procure footage (Williams had to convince Disney to license him footage of the studio's animated movies) and others still had to figure out how to tell stories without any available footage at all (Maitland turned to animation).

They weighed in on hot controversies of the day, such as where the line exists between a "film doc" and a "TV doc." Said Edelman of his O.J. doc, which is at the center of that debate: "The first thing I said is, 'I do not want to make a miniseries, I do not want to make five one-hour things' — the thing that interested me about this was making one long film." They also discussed how the Academy considers, or fails to consider, so many eligible docs. Doc branch governor Williams acknowledged, "It's not necessarily working," while Ewing, a member of the branch's executive committee, added, "The truth is nothing's worked so far."

And they also talked about how they decided their film was done (Irving cited the Sundance submission deadline); how it felt to find out major events occurred once their film was finished (it came to light that Weiner had continued sexting and that Jones had a cancer recurrence — she would die on Nov. 18); how their subjects reacted to seeing their story on the big screen (the Gleasons "started crying within 10 seconds," while Weiner claims he hasn't yet seen the film that bears his name); and what's next for their subjects (Irving's subject Darius McCollum remains in jail and soon will be the subject of a narrative film starring Julia Roberts).