For the 10th year in a row, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, the 26th edition of which ran from Oct. 21 through Oct. 28, was the place to be for documentary filmmakers and documentary lovers — specifically on Oct. 25, when The Hollywood Reporter presented and your humble correspondent hosted the fest’s Docs to Watch panel that brings together the directors of up to 10 of the year’s finest documentary features.
Over the past nine years, 45 films were nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar, 19 of which were first highlighted as Docs to Watch. And in seven of those nine years, one of the Docs to Watch went on to win the best documentary feature Oscar: 2015’s Amy, 2016’s O.J.: Made in America, 2017’s Icarus, 2018’s Free Solo, 2019’s American Factory, 2021’s Summer of Soul and 2022’s Navalny. (The other two eventual winners — 2014’s Citizenfour and 2020’s My Octopus Teacher — were not screened in time to be considered for Docs to Watch.)
This year, as you can see for yourself in the video atop this post, nine filmmakers appeared on the Docs to Watch panel, discussing the origins of their projects, challenges they encountered along the way and how they and their subjects have been impacted by the process of making and releasing the film:
- On behalf of PBS’s 20 Days in Mariupol, a film about a team of Ukrainian journalists for the Associated Press who continue working during the Russian invasion of their country in order to show the world what is happening in a city under siege, Mstyslav Chernov
- On behalf of Netflix’s American Symphony, a film about the musician Jon Batiste experiencing his greatest professional success at the same time his wife is facing her greatest personal challenge, a best documentary feature Oscar nominee for 2015’s Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman
- On behalf of Roadside’s Beyond Utopia, a film about a South Korean pastor and some of the desperate people he tries to help escape from oppressive North Korea, Madeleine Gavin
- On behalf of Netflix’s The Deepest Breath, a film about star — and star-crossed — deep-sea free divers, Laura McGann
- On behalf of MTV’s The Eternal Memory, a film about Augusto Gongora and Pauli Urrutia, a prominent Chilean husband and wife, as Augusto descends into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease and Pauli cares for him, a best documentary feature Oscar nominee for 2020’s The Mole Agent, Maite Alberdi
- On behalf of Magnolia’s Kokomo City, a film about the lives of four Black transgender women who have performed sex work and open up about their experiences and dreams, D. Smith
- On behalf of Nat Geo’s The Mission, a film about the efforts of a young Evangelical missionary determined to make contact with one of the world’s most isolated Indigenous peoples, on behalf of himself and his co-director Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
- On behalf of Amazon’s Silver Dollar Road, a film about a Black family in North Carolina whose ancestral land has been taken from them via a legal loophole, a best documentary feature Oscar nominee for 2016’s I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck
- And on behalf of Apple’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a film about the life and struggles of the eponymous beloved actor who was stricken at a young age with Parkinson’s disease, an Oscar winner for 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim
Unfortunately, Roger Ross Williams (a best documentary short Oscar winner for 2009’s Music by Prudence and a best documentary feature Oscar nominee for 2016’s Life, Animated), the director of a 10th film that was chosen as one of this year’s Docs to Watch (Netflix’s Stamped from the Beginning, a film about the history of anti-Black racism in America) had to cancel his appearance due to illness.
Prior to the panel, the fest presented a special honor, its inaugural Rising Documentarian Award, to Travon Free and, in absentia, his directing partner Martin Desmond Roe. The filmmaking team are best known for 2020’s Two Distant Strangers, which won the best live action short Oscar. But they followed that by releasing, via HBO, two acclaimed documentaries in the last two years, the 2022 doc short 38 at the Garden, about basketball star Jeremy Lin and the rise of anti-Asian hate in America, and the 2023 doc feature BS High, about a con artist who organizes a football team on behalf of a high school that does not actually exist that winds up playing a high school powerhouse in a game televised on ESPN.