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Political Documentaries Put a Human Face on Controversial Issues

Many of the year’s best political documentaries took a microcosmic perspective into the lives of those who were facing something much larger than themselves. Whether it was offering a first-hand look at organized activism in “The Case Against 8”; tackling the NSA scandal with Edward Snowden himself in “Citizenfour”; following a North Dakota pastor on his journey of helping others in “The Overnighters”; or “Red Army,” a story about the real Russian ice hockey stars who lost the gold medal to the U.S. in the famed 1980 Olympic match, each documentary provided a human face to tell what could have been a purely political story.

For “The Case Against 8” filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White, it was plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami who quickly became the stars of their film, as well as the stars of the high-profile case that fought to overturn Proposition 8 in the state of California. Over 600 hours of footage covers this five-year journey and allows audiences to follow the case from inception to the Supreme Court, all while watching two gay couples take on the pressures of the case, and the weight of the entire LGBT community.

“We were not trying to make a film about whether gay marriage was right or wrong. Our intent was to show the characters’ journey,” White says. The challenge of the film was “finding a balance between the legal world and the information necessary to contextualize the entire film, and then the human side and the stories that anyone would relate to,” he says.

“It came down to the human side of things. When you get to know people it becomes a no-brainer that you would support their rights. We wanted to get across that conservatives have gay family members, liberals have gay family members, and when you strip away that partisanship it really is just about caring for other individuals.”

“The art of filmmaking is trying to find these balances,” says “Red Army” director Gabe Polsky. “Where you’re getting into these larger themes, but at the same time, what’s really going to get an audience to connect on an emotional level?” In his case, it was through Slava Fetisov, a Russian national symbol and the captain of the Soviet Union national hockey team. Polsky says hockey was just a window to a much larger story about the U.S.S.R. and how the Red Army team reflected the communist ideology at that time. “If you want to see the relationship between Russia and the United States, it’s reflected in my film.”

Laura Poitras was also able to hit on that human connection in her high-profile doc “Citizenfour,” through none other than whistleblower Snowden. Sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Poitras shines a light on Snowden as he decides to expose the NSA’s secrets. The award-winning filmmaker is no stranger to the topic of NSA surveillance and has been on the U.S. government’s watch list for quite some time, which is why Poitras says she started to receive “cryptic, mysterious and disturbing emails” that soon made her part of the story. She says, “I didn’t question whether or not I wanted to be involved with the reporting, but I did know it would be risky. It would be naive of me not to be aware, given the fact that we were going to upset and anger really powerful people.”

The doc brings a close to her post-9/11 trilogy, where she said, “I’ve been working on documenting what is happening in the U.S. post 9/11, feeling like there was a drift away from fundamental principles of due process.” As a filmmaker, Poitras says she wants to communicate something about the world she sees. “I think this film documents people who are willing to make personal sacrifices to inform the public about what the government is doing.”

Also applying a human touch was Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s “E-Team,” which tracked four daring human rights workers both at home and during their frequently dangerous field work. For “Documented,” director Jose Antonio Vargas explored illegal immigration through his own experiences.

“Immigration is the most controversial yet least understand issue in America,” says Vargas, who decided to make “Documented” after he outed himself an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times magazine. The film documents his journey in America from the Philippines, and what his life has been like knowing he is an “illegal alien” and what that term means.

“You cannot change the politics of this issue, unless you change the culture in which people talk about this issue,” said Vargas. “So long as people think we are a bunch of illegal criminals, nothing is going to change. One of the things I say in the film is this issue is not what you think it is and we’re not who you think we are. And the whole goal of that is humanizing a very political issue.”

And for “The Overnighters,” Jesse Moss says, “As a filmmaker, we respond to people who are passionate, obsessive, and driven.” All of which describe pastor Jay Reinke.

After 18 months shooting alone in oil-boom town Williston, N.D., Moss found the man who was making a sacrifice to help desperate people in search of the American dream. With themes like religion, homelessness, fracking and energy looming overhead in his doc, Moss says the central question is, what does it means to love thy neighbor? “To me the film transcended the confines of this small church and this one faith. It became this bigger question about America that we are asking ourselves now. … How do I help people who have less? And Jay was confronting this question.”

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