Savannah Film Fest: 10 Top Documentary Oscar Contenders on the Good, Bad and Ugly Sides of Their Art

This year, a record 170 documentary features have been deemed eligible for the best documentary feature prize that will be presented at the 90th Oscars on March 4. Before a winner is crowned, though, the Academy's documentary branch must first pick a shortlist of 15 films from which five nominees will be chosen (nominations in all categories will be revealed on Jan. 23). Since few doc branch members have the time to see all of the eligible titles, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, for the past four 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(s) to participate in a panel that I have the privilege of moderating.

The panelists who came together this year, at the Lucas Theatre on Oct. 29, were: Evgeny Afineevsky, an Oscar nominee for 2015’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (and the "Docs to Watch" panel's first ever two-time panelist), on behalf of HBO’s Cries From Syria, a film about at the brutal and ongoing Syrian civil war; Greg Barker on behalf of HBO’s The Final Year, a film about former President Barack Obama’s national security team during the last year of his administration; Bryan Fogel on behalf of Netflix’s Icarus, a film about sports doping and the Russians’ conspiracy behind it; Yance Ford on behalf of Netflix’s Strong Island, a film about the 1992 murder of the director’s brother William and the impact that it had on his family; Amanda Lipitz on behalf of Fox Searchlight’s Step, a film about the step dance team members from the first graduating class of a Baltimore girls school; Brett Morgen, an Oscar nominee for 1999’s On the Ropes, on behalf of National Geographic’s Jane, a film about the early life and work of primatologist Jane Goodall; Jeff Orlowski on behalf of Netflix’s Chasing Coral, a film about the devastating impact of climate change on the oceans’ coral reefs; Laura Poitras, an Oscar nominee for 2006’s My Country, My Country and an Oscar winner for 2014’s Citizenfour, on behalf of Showtime's Risk, a film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s life and work during his sanctuary in Ecuador's embassy in London; John Ridley, an Oscar winner for the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, on behalf of Lincoln Square’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, a film about the events leading up to and including the L.A. riots and the people who were a part of them; and Ceyda Torun on behalf of Oscilloscope’s Kedi, a film about the street cats of Istanbul and the locals who love them.

Over the course of roughly two hours, the filmmakers and I discussed a wide range of topics. Among them: the origin stories of their currently contending docs; the dynamics of the filmmaker-subject relationship; how challenges and moral dilemmas were handled; how one knows when the process of making a doc is over; what it's been like rolling the docs out into the world; how the filmmaker and their subjects have been impacted by the film; and much more.