Savannah Film Fest: Directors of 9 Top 2015 Docs Discuss Challenges, Rewards of Filmmaking

The members of the Academy's documentary branch have until Nov. 20 to cast their ballots for the documentary feature Oscar shortlist, which will winnow down 124 eligible titles to just 15, from which the five nominees ultimately will be chosen. The consensus of the many doc branch members with whom I've spoken over the last few weeks is that this year's race is as deep and competitive as any in memory. That has been my sense, too, as I've screened dozens of the contenders, and it is why I was so delighted when the Savannah Film Festival invited me to return for the second year in a row to moderate a 90-minute "Documentary Panel Discussion" with the directors of nine of them. (You can watch our full conversation, which took place at Savannah's historic 1200-seat Lucas Theatre, at the top of this post.)

The panelists were...

Morgan Neville (an Oscar winner for 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon on behalf of Magnolia and Participant Media’s Best of Enemies, a film about a series of televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal.

Asif Kapadia on behalf of A24’s Amy, a film about the life and tragically premature death of the singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse.

Bobcat Goldthwait, on behalf of MPI Media Group’s Call Me Lucky, a film about the comedy and tragedy in the life of comedian and activist Barry Crimmins.

Crystal Moselle on behalf of Magnolia’s The Wolfpack, a film about a group of siblings who spend almost their entire childhood locked in a New York apartment.

Liz Garbus (an Oscar nominee for 1998's The Farm: Angola, USA) on behalf of Netflix’s What Happened Miss Simone?, a film about the triumphs and troubles of the late singer-songwriter Nina Simone.

Matthew Heineman on behalf of The Orchard’s Cartel Land, a film about efforts on both sides of the American-Mexican border to combat the ruthless drug cartels that threaten the region.

Kirby Dick (an Oscar nominee for 2004’s Twist of Faith and 2012’s The Invisible War) on behalf of Radius-TWC’s The Hunting Ground, a film about the epidemic of rape on college campuses across America.

Evgeny Afineevsky on behalf of Netflix’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a film about the recent revolution in the Eastern European nation.

Geeta Patel on behalf of Alchemy’s Meet the Patels (which she co-directed with her brother Ravi Patel), a film about a young Indian-American man’s quest to find a wife using the traditional methods suggested to him by his anxious parents.

Over the course of our time together, the panelists discussed how they came to the doc world (from film school, from acting, from journalism, from working with Menahem Golan, etc.); what led them to the subject(s) of their 2015 doc (a bootleg DVD, a walk down a New York street, a nudge from Robin Williams, concerns raised during Q&As from a previous doc, a call from a music label or a relative of the subject); the challenges they faced making their 2015 doc (facing gunfire, vetting the credibility of interview subjects, dealing with an adversarial interview subject, culling down 500 hours of footage to an 84-minute runtime, debating whether or not to film a man revisiting the scene of his rape or share a dead woman's diaries, etc.); unconventional techniques employed in their 2015 doc (animation, reenactments, voice actors, shunning talking heads, etc.); and what they hope audiences will take away from their 2015 doc (memories of the dead, holding up a mirror to a society, changing the discourse, etc).