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The true stories behind the making of six Oscar-contending documentaries

The Oscars documentary race is still full of questions: Can the academy brave Xenu's wrath and vote for the Scientology exposé "Going Clear"? Do voters prefer Kurt Cobain ("Montage of Heck") to Amy Winehouse ("Amy"), or are they partial to Janis Joplin ("Janis: Little Girl Blue")? Will documentary pioneer Albert Maysles, last nominated in 1974, get a posthumous nod for "Iris," or will they favor the young with Davis Guggenheim's portrait of a teenage human-rights activist, "He Named Me Malala"? Depending on whom you ask, the six films below are sure things or long shots, but they tell some of the year's most engrossing stories, and have stories just as interesting behind them.

Phurba Tashi in Jennifer Peedom's "Sherpa."
Phurba Tashi in Jennifer Peedom's "Sherpa." (Felix Media)

"Sherpa"

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Where Universal's feature film "Everest" takes the climber's-eye view, Jennifer Peedom's "Sherpa" turns the camera on the people who do much of the work and get none of the credit. Beginning with an avalanche that killed 16 sherpas on one of the deadliest days in Mt. Everest's history, the movie shows how scaling one of the world's most forbidding peaks has become almost routine thanks to the efforts of the Nepalese natives who haul supplies and share generations of experience. Sherpa, one of the documentary's subject notes, has become a brand — if you're climbing Everest, you want a native Sherpa on your team, not some off-label replacement.

With the sherpas' deaths kicking off a movement for better working conditions, "Sherpa" becomes a movie about the global economy as well as the risks of mountain climbing, and the unseen labor that allows foreign climbers the illusion they're doing it alone.

"Everyone used to do everything on the mountain," Peedom notes. "Now it's a fully serviced industry. People say, 'I climbed Everest unsupported.' Do you even know what that means? I don't think some people even realize how much work goes into making their climb possible."

Evgeny Afineevsky's "Winter on Fire" is an on-the-street look at political unrest in Ukraine.
Evgeny Afineevsky's "Winter on Fire" is an on-the-street look at political unrest in Ukraine. (Netflix)

"Winter on Fire"

Documenting a revolution in both politics and filmmaking, "Winter on Fire" marshals footage from more than two dozen cameras to capture the 2014 protests in Kiev's Independence Square that grew into a movement powerful enough to unseat the country's president.

Russian-born, Israel-raised Evgeny Afineevsky, who now lives in Los Angeles, deputized dozens of local filmmakers, some with TV news cameras, some with iPhones, when he arrived on the second day of protests. They saw police beating protesters and worse, and some were attacked themselves, but they were bound together by a collective spirit.

"I think everybody was equal in that moment," Afineevsky says. "Everybody was in danger but nobody was thinking about these things. The spirit of unity, the spirit of togetherness was strong there. The team was really dedicated to the filmmaking process, only thinking about how to capture and document the moment that was happening."

Although retrospective interviews and added graphics provide clarity, "Winter on Fire" sticks to the ground-level view, eschewing politics in favor of moments like a young woman giving a virtuosic performance on an upright piano perched atop the rubble. "It's not about the political story for me," Afineesvky says. "I wanted to tell a human story behind the headlines."

The life of Nina Simone is examined in "What Happened, Miss Simone?" from director Liz Garbus.
The life of Nina Simone is examined in "What Happened, Miss Simone?" from director Liz Garbus. (Peter Rodis / Netflix)

"What Happened, Miss Simone?"

Nina Simone was only a fleeting presence in last year's civil rights film "Selma," serenading marchers on their way to the Alabama statehouse to demand equal voting rights. But she takes center stage in Liz Garbus' biographical portrait, which portrays her as a complicated, sometimes troubled artist whose work has lost none of its power or relevance.

A child prodigy, Simone aspired to be a classical pianist, but after being turned away from the conservatory, she found a more accepting audience in jazz clubs. The civil rights movement, and the racial violence of the '50s and '60s radicalized her; she wrote "Mississippi Goddam" the day of the Birmingham church bombing only after failing to build a gun.

The issues "What Happened, Miss Simone?" deals with — the corrosive power of racism, the volatile interplay between artistic temperament and mental instability — never go away, but the film's release only a few months after the Ferguson protests and the birth of Black Lives Matter makes it seem especially timely. "When we were editing," says Garbus, "the images on CNN were the same as the images on our screen from 1966. That was something."

Marlon Brando and young Christian Brando are seen in Stevan Riley's "Listen to Me Marlon."
Marlon Brando and young Christian Brando are seen in Stevan Riley's "Listen to Me Marlon." (Mike Gillman / Showtime)

"Listen to Me Marlon"

As iconic as any of the characters he played, Marlon Brando has passed into history swaddled in layers of myth — layers that Stevan Riley's documentary slices away with the precision of a scalpel. It's the rare star portrait that pays as much attention to his craft as to his personal life: a movie about an actor, but also about acting.

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"The conclusion that he leads us to is that acting is a lie and life is a lie, that we all lie every day," Riley says. "He used to say that if you woke up in the morning and told the truth, you'd be dead by sunset."

Truth is always elusive, but culling from Brando's more than 300 hours of unreleased personal audio files — self-hypnosis tapes, therapy sessions, even a three-hour conversation with Michael Jackson — "Listen to Me Marlon" offers precious insight into who Brando was when the cameras weren't rolling.

Crystal Moselle's "The Wolfpack" documents the Angulo brothers, whose main connection to the world outside their family's home was through movies.
Crystal Moselle's "The Wolfpack" documents the Angulo brothers, whose main connection to the world outside their family's home was through movies. (Magnolia Pictures)

"The Wolfpack"

It's a story that at once seems made for Hollywood and way too strange for it: Six brothers, raised in near-total isolation in a tiny New York apartment, who managed to forge a connection with the outside world by staging homemade reenactments of American movies. But that's what "The Wolfpack's" Crystal Moselle found when she followed them home, after a chance meeting during one of their rare forays into the street.

"It's really about how your imagination can completely take you out of those situations where you feel uncomfortable or scared," says Moselle. "They're resourceful and very resilient and had an affinity with film and storytelling, and that's what saved them from their situation."

"The Wolfpack" has a natural appeal to cinephiles, but Moselle has found it resonates with another demographic as well. "Our fan base is mostly moms," she says. "The people who engage the most are women who want to make sure that the boys are doing OK."

In fact, the film's incredible story has helped propel the Angulo brothers toward their second act, living a life that includes the rest of the world.

Adi Rukun questions Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for his brother's death during the 1960s Indonesian massacres, in Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence."
Adi Rukun questions Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for his brother's death during the 1960s Indonesian massacres, in Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence." (Drafthouse Films)

"The Look of Silence"

A companion piece to his staggering (and shortlisted) "The Act of Killing," Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence" serves as an implicit answer to the question some asked of his previous movie, which focused on the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of the 1960s: What about the victims?

As the perpetrators featured in "Killing" have held political power ever since — Oppenheimer likens it to a present-day Germany if the Nazis had won — coming forward remains dangerous for survivors, but in "Look," Adi Rukun, who was born two years after his brother was slain, confronts the men who killed him, not in the name of vengeance, but of reckoning.

"I was very careful to show the perpetrators not as evil," Oppenheimer says. We see that they are desperately trying to avoid acknowledging even to themselves that what they did was wrong. This is not to justify what they've done, but they are human beings that have Adi's empathy and should have ours." In "Killing," Oppenheimer plumbed the killers' psyches by allowing them to stage bizarre dramatizations of their crimes; here, the victim controls the camera and he uses it to bear down on them, until they either fill the silence or are defeated by it.

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