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The Year In Documentaries: Many great films but no blockbusters

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With awards season upon us, here's a look at the documentary films of 2015. Documentarian and Off-Ramp contributor R. H. Greene recently spoke with some of the most celebrated filmmakers in this mixed bag of a year.

It's a warm December night on the Paramount backlot, where the cream of the documentary film community crop has assembled for the annual International Documentary Association awards ceremony.

"I can't remember a year where there've been as many really good, strong films come out. The creativity behind them is fantastic," says the association's Simon Kilmurry.

By one metric, 2015 was exceptional: 139 documentary features were exhibited commercially. That's down from 151 last year, but still the fourth largest number of docs ever released in a single year.

However, there were no box-office blockbusters — no "March of the Penguins," no "Fahrenheit 9/11." And docs aren't making money — more than half of distributed documentaries grossed less than $40,000 at the box office. Overall, documentary market share was an abysmal 0.64 percent of total theatrical gross, which is a 75 percent drop since 2004.


Amy trailer

"Amy," an intimate biography of the late British soul singer Amy Winehouse, was the year's most commercially successful "cultural" documentary and is an Oscar front-runner. The documentary's director, Asif Kapadia, says "Amy" might be the first documentary about a pop icon that fully embraces the age of the selfie.

"A lot of the footage is shown by people very close to Amy," Kapadia says. "And then it becomes Amy holding a camera. But what that means is that Amy's looking straight down the lens — talking to her friends, talking to her first manager, talking to her boyfriend — and therefore talking to us, the audience. There's a very different kind of relationship, and we, the audience, become all these different people in Amy's life."

Kapadia says the audience even becomes complicit in her tragic death.

"What I found uncomfortable making the film was the way we treat people who are on the way down, people who are not well. We, as the audience, maybe played a little bit of a part in it."

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence trailer

Director Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence" is on the Oscars' 2015 documentary shortlist. Oppenheimer's two films about the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s are among the most acclaimed works of 21st-century cinema. In "The Act of Killing," aging death squad leaders proudly re-enacted old massacres for Oppenheimer's cameras. "The Look of Silence" is a quieter film — it is the portrait of a shy Indonesian optometrist who uses his trade to gain access to and confront the men who killed his brother. He's an eye doctor forcing murderers to see.

"Again and again in the film we hear, 'Let the past be past,'" Oppenheimer says. "But survivors always say it out of fear. Perpetrators always say it as a threat, which means the past isn't past. It's right there keeping the survivors afraid and silent, keeping the perpetrators empowered to threaten. And until the past is addressed, there will be no lasting assurance of peace."

The IDA's 2015 award for Best Documentary Feature went to "The Look of Silence." If the film does grab an Oscar, the acceptance speech could be a barnburner.

"This is not just Indonesian history," Oppenheimer says. "This is American history. The United States participated in this genocide. We provided weapons, money, lists which we gave to the Indonesian army, essentially saying, 'Kill these people. Check off the names as you kill them.'"


Watch the trailer for "(T)error"

Perhaps no narrative or nonfiction film this year was more timely than "(T)error," the documentary by filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. "(T)error" infiltrates an active terrorism investigation by getting close to an FBI informant, and the supposed terrorist the informant is trying to entrap. The problem is the "informant" is inept, the suspect doesn’t appear to be a terrorist — and they figure out what’s going on.

"Those informants are being used to create cases which reinforce in the public imagination the ever-present and local threat of terrorism," says Sutcliffe. "Upon seeing the film, you see that that threat is being fabricated on a regular basis by the FBI."

Interviewed just days after the San Bernardino massacre, Cabral and Sutcliffe say they believe their movie has something vital to contribute to the national dialogue.

"In the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino, I think that was the 365th mass shooting [this year]," Cabral says. "There have been two mass shootings that have been associated with terrorism. And that is the one committed by Nidal Hasan, and then the suspects in San Bernardino, who also are Muslim. And so I think what our film illustrates is the disproportionate toll that surveillance — that FBI surveillance, particularly the use of informants — has taken on the Muslim community, post-9/11. When we look at this shooting, this is sort of the most catastrophic event imaginable. This is the terrorism we all seek to prevent and the FBI seeks to prevent every day. But unfortunately, it's only looking for terrorism in the Muslim community."