"Amy," "Cartel Land," "The Look of Silence," "What Happened, Miss Simone?" and "Winter On Fire: Ukraine's fight For Freedom" were announced as Academy Award nominees for documentary feature on Thursday morning.
The films represent a mix of pop culture, politics, political activism and current events. "Amy," directed by Asif Kapadia, and "The Look of Silence," directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, have dominated the documentary categories of awards season leading to the nominations.
"Amy," Kapadia's portrait of singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011, was created from archival footage of Winehouse and more recent interviews with those who knew her. The film has brought in more than $8 million at the box office, an exceptionally high number for a doc.
"It started off as a film about Amy," said Kapadia on the phone from London, "but it kind of became a film about us. It's as much about the audience and the media and the entertainment business."
Winehouse's downward spiral of addiction and bulimia played itself in real time in the tabloid media. Kapadia at first thought there wasn't a movie in her story, but after conducting a series of interviews and uncovering a trove of footage, he saw something more.
"It wasn't one of those stories that was just a bit sad, there was something awful that went on," he said. "And I wanted that feeling to go through to the audience. I wanted them to fall in love with her, and I wanted them to feel angry towards the end, and I wanted them to wonder about their own complicity."
For a long time documentaries on pop culture and music did not find favor with the academy. But that's changed over the last few years with the music-related stories "Searching For Sugar Man" and "20 Feet From Stardom" winning the Oscar.
It is nevertheless unusual to see two music films nominated this year. Besides "Amy," the film "What Happened, Miss Simone?" directed by Liz Garbus is a portrait of the musician and activist Nina Simone.
"They didn't cancel each other out," said Garbus of the nominations for "Amy" and "Miss Simone." "I commend the doc branch for not trying to oversimplify, for having a deep look at the films and what they stood for and what they meant. They're very different."
Garbus noted that singer John Legend invoked Simone's name last year while accepting an Oscar for the song featured in the movie "Selma" and that social commitment of songs such as "Mississippi Goddamn" feels as timely now as when it was first released in 1964.
"I think the time was ripe for Nina Simone's voice to have a resurgence," said Garbus. "Her songs roused people 50 years ago and inspired them to fight for justice and equality and that moment for awareness about racial injustice has come again and her voice feels modern and relevant to this moment. "
"Miss Simone" was released in theaters but also on the popular online streaming platform Netflix, as was "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom," directed by Evgeny Afineevsky.
The film looks at the 2014 Maidan Square protests in Kiev with a bracing immediacy, using footage culled from a complex web of interviews and footage. No fewer than 28 camera-people are credited on the film.
On Thursday morning Afineevsky, who lives in Los Angeles, was on the phone from Europe, where he is working on his next project. He recalled a striking parallel he noticed when he first began to screen the film, when he noted, "I found this mirroring everything the founding fathers of the United States were fighting for. It's a reminder to younger generations of what is the real price of freedom, the real price of democracy. Together we can achieve something much bigger."
"The Look of Silence" is the second film by Oppenheimer to examine the aftermath of genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s. His previous film, "The Act of Killing," was also nominated for the Academy Award.
"I think the two films complete one another and form a greater whole," said Oppenheimer on the phone from New York City on Thursday morning.
"We're hoping very much that this nomination helps make the dream of truth and reconciliation and healing a reality for Indonesia," said Oppenheimer, adding that for many people in the country the films have become a way to "acknowledge what they're always known to be true but have been too afraid to articulate."
In "Cartel Land," director Matthew Heineman looks at civilian groups on both in the U.S. and Mexico trying to stem the tide of violence and drugs from vicious Mexican cartels.
"I wanted to create this parallel portrait of vigilantism on both sides of the border," Heineman said by phone Thursday from Los Angeles. "I was really fascinated by what provokes us to take up arms. Constantly at every step of this journey I wondered, 'What would I do?' "
In making the film, Heineman found himself caught in the crossfire of gun battles and in the middle of a nighttime outdoor meth lab. What he discovered continually surprised.
"At first I thought it was a very simple story, I thought it was good guys versus bad guys. As you see in the film, over time things becomes murky and gray," Heineman added. "I was never sure the academy would nominate the film. It's very nuanced, with a lot of grayness. I'm very grateful they embraced it."