Hot-button issue documentaries have long been an academy favorite. But the 15 films on this year's feature documentary shortlist showcase an uncommonly broad range of approaches, from the activist to the elliptical, a reminder that, even as the country's political discourse grows more coarse and hyperbolic, there are ways to talk about the things that matter most without resorting to a shout.
Some of the shortlisted documentaries grew more relevant by chance. "Best of Enemies," Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's sleek synopsis of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal's televised 1968 debates, dovetails neatly with an election season thus far dominated by a reality TV star, and as Liz Garbus was finishing "What Happened Miss Simone?," a portrait of the singer and activist, she was struck by the eerie similarity between the footage on her edit screen and the live footage from Ferguson, Mo.
Others aimed for contemporary relevance. As they were making "The Hunting Ground," an alarming portrait of colleges and universities' insufficient response to the problem of on-campus sexual assault, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering became convinced they were documenting the birth of what Dick calls "a new student movement on the rise." While he and Ziering were showing their previous documentary, "The Invisible War," about sexual assault in the military, to students, "We started getting emails from people imploring both of us to make a film" about what was happening on college campuses, he says. "This had never happened to us."
When Marc Silver's "3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets," which documents the trial of a white Florida man accused of shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager in a dispute over loud music, was screened at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, N.C., just days after a white police officer gunned down an unarmed black man in South Carolina, the resonance between the two deaths hung heavy in the air. And with the Black Lives Matter movement working to keep a national spotlight on similar incidents, it seems as if hardly a week passes without the movie's topicality being reaffirmed.
"Every time that I've screened the film since it was released, I have to learn a new name of somebody who has been killed," Silver says, "where the DNA of this story and the reason for that construction of fear and the rest of it are repeated over and over again."
Although Donald Trump's concerns have of late shifted from Mexico to Muslims, Matthew Heineman's "Cartel Land," which embeds with vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, still speaks powerfully to a political moment when the fear of outsiders and the Second Amendment's militia clause are on the docket daily.
"Cartel Land" begins with border-patrolling vigilantes in Arizona, but the heart of the film is in Michoacán, Mexico, where a civilian militia dubbed the Autodéfensas rises up to fight the violence of drug cartels and the complacency of a corrupt government. On both sides of the border, it becomes clear that when self-appointed law enforcement agents redraw the map, the moral boundaries are written in pencil.
"When I started filming, I thought I was telling this very simple story in the sense of a classic Western," Heineman says. "Good versus evil, everyday citizens rising up against the corrupt government and an evil cartel. But the more time I spent down there, it became this exploration and investigation of human behavior, almost like an "Animal Farm" or "Lord of the Flies." These lines between good and evil that I thought were clear became ever more blurry."
Michael Moore turns the rhetoric of militarism inside-out in "Where to Invade Next," a globe-trotting (or at least Europe-trotting) travelogue where his one-man army pillages ideas instead of pulling a gun. With movies like "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Sicko," and the Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine," Moore has never shied away from pointing a finger at his native country's shortcomings, but "Where to Invade" leaves the U.S., and its issues, behind. Moore described it to his crew as "the no problems, all solutions movie."
In Italy, Moore talks to workers who get eight weeks paid vacation a year. In Slovenia, he meets students, including some Americans, taking advantage of its guaranteed free college education. He cites Germany's ever-present reminders of the Holocaust as a model for the U.S. in reckoning with its own historical atrocities, and interviews the father of one of Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik's victims, whose continued opposition to the death penalty will strike some Americans as awe-inspiring, and others as simply baffling. (Breivik, who murdered 69 people, is currently serving a 21-year sentence.)
"I got to the point where I felt I, Michael Moore, as a documentary filmmaker, as a citizen, I think I've covered most of the bases here as to what's" messed-up, Moore said. "I don't need to bother you with that anymore. What if I gave you two hours of 'Here's some possible solutions'? You might leave the theater with some hope."
Heineman says that "Cartel Land" is "not a traditional policy film"; it's designed to "put a human face on this conflict" rather than propose political solutions. And while Dick believes state and federal governments have an important role to play in addressing campus sexual assault (and praises the Obama administration's progress on that front), he stresses that it's not a partisan issue. But Silver, who is British, explicitly aligns his movie with Black Lives Matter, and Moore has taken time away from promoting "Where to Invade's" theatrical release to pressure Facebook to ban Donald Trump's posts as hate speech.
As diverse as their approaches may be, the film academy has placed them all in the same boat, and moved them one step closer to the biggest stage the industry has to offer. The 15 films on the shortlist will be whittled down to five when the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 14.