Oscars 2016: Six documentary-makers give their picks for Best Documentary Feature

For documentary filmmakers there are few prizes more coveted than the Oscars’ Best Documentary Feature.

In recent years the award has been given to plenty of exceptional films; documentaries that have offered insights into little known worlds, told meaningful stories that may otherwise have gone unnoticed, and that have held powers to account. Last year’s winner Citizenfour shed light on the NSA surveillance allegations in a film that quickly developed into a real-life spy thriller. Over the past decade, winning documentaries have included An Inconvenient Truth featuring Al Gore, the dark depiction of the War on Terror in Afghanistan in Taxi to the Dark Side, and an exhilarating portrait of Philippe Petit in Man on Wire. The shocking expose on the slaughter of dolphins in Japan The Cove, as well as an the exploration into the Global Financial Crisis, Inside Job, and the electrifying 20 Feet from Stardom (with those Merry Clayton vocals that still leave us speechless) have also picked up the prestigious award.

This year’s strong list of candidates for Best Documentary Feature include BAFTA Award-winning Amy (Asif Kapadia and James Gay-rees), Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman and Tom Yellin), The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen), What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby and Justin Wilkes) and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky and Den Tolmor). We asked five documentary filmmakers and one radio documentary-maker what their picks for the award would be.

Shafiur Rahman

Documentary filmmaker, whose short documentary Italian Vandal was a support film for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing at Picture House cinemas

It is a riveting short list. Two films dealing with two  highly enigmatic artists and three films depicting the goings on in our troubled planet. So if a gun was pointed at me, I would choose  Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. I was thoroughly impressed by his The Act of Killing. This is film making which shines a light at the perpetrators of injustice, and can make a change.

Jeanie Finlay

Artist and Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay whose film Orion: The Man Who Would Be King won a BIFA in 2015

The Oscars, what to say?

Does the best film always win? It’s so subjective, it absolutely depends on what your definition of best is.

Is it fair? Not one bit. There’s been huge column inches written about #Oscarssowhite but as we all know the under representation of women and people of colour at the oscars is not a new thing, not one bit. Also as IDFA so eloquently showed in their research: Juries with a male majority are much more likely to award male directors.”

I welcome the mooted reforms to the Academy and hope there can be some real change.

It would be churlish to deny the impact that an Oscar can have on the life of a film – I am based at an independent cinema and the busy queues in January and February clearly demonstrate the reach of Oscars buzz. 

My choice:

I celebrate Liz Garbus as one of the only female nominated directors for What Happened, Miss Simone? My favourite of the nominated docs is The Look Of SilenceI think we should celebrate bold filmmakers and bold filmmaking and that is what Joshua Oppenheimer embodies.

I think Amy will win.

Martin Lennon

Documentary Filmmaker, director of Blank Canvas and The Mineral Man

I would say The Look of Silence because The Act of Killing was robbed last time. Both movies should go together as masterpieces in documentary filmmaking.

Duncan Cowles

Best Film & the BFI RAW award winner

I embarrassingly have only seen two of the five nominees; Amy and Cartel Land. Both pretty solid films. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m looking forward to seeing The Look of Silence, and from what I’ve heard it potentially deserves the win. I will say though, that I was disappointed not to see A Syrian Love Story by Sean McAllister nominated. If it had been, I would’ve liked that to be awarded and recognised. Absolutely incredible storytelling. I was really blown away by it. True personal, cinematic authored work, that I think everyone should try and seek out. 

What will actually win though? Who knows, it’s always a bit of a lottery. Maybe Cartel Land? Not sure.

Lorenzo Ferrarini

Lorenzo Ferrarini is a filmmaker, photographer and sound recordist based at the University of Manchester, where he teaches Ethnographic Documentary at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology. Kalanda, about initiated hunters in Burkina Faso, is his latest documentary.

I’d like to see The Look of Silence win the Academy Award this year. Together with The Act of Killing, it not only constitutes a brave and powerful piece of filmmaking but it pushes further a synthesis of the dual tendencies towards documenting and provoking that are latent in the history of non-fiction film. Its importance goes beyond the denunciation of the Indonesian mass killings, it pushes us to think more openly about documentary as a genre.

Sofia Saldanha

Award winning radio producer working for In the Dark radio

I haven’t seen all the features that are down in the race for best documentary, but I was really taken by What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone is a such a wonderful character, full of contradictions, ups and downs and adventures. She is a very inspiring woman for having done what she truly believed. Nina Simone spoke out of her heart and I do really respect that.

So there you go! Our experts have spoken. Can Amy build on its BAFTAs success? Will our documentary-makers’ majority favourite The Look of Silence pick up the Oscar? Or could it go to any of the other brilliant documentaries on the list? It’s a tight race, and we’re looking forward to watching the winner announced next week.

Let us know what documentary you would pick as the Oscar winner, and who you think will scoop the award, via our Facebook or Twitter.

Photo credit: Prayitno/Flickr CC