“But if you’re talking about marginalized groups, there’s no question the white working class should count among them,” he said. “So if there’s a filmmaker with integrity who comes from a red-state world and a red-state perspective and who wants to tell a different kind of story, I want to find that person and make a movie with them.”
What would that movie look like? In today’s America, one person’s social malady can be another’s sacred tradition, and feelings are easily bruised.
“It’s fabulous to know that the outside world has finally heard about us hillbillies and want to come down and help us,” joked the West Virginia-born filmmaker Mari-Lynn C. Evans. Her most recent film, “Blood on the Mountain,” may be exactly what Mr. Cogan, Ms. Jackson and others have in mind: a history of West Virginia coal mining that excoriates the coal industry, ennobles the coal miner and is told by someone from that culture.
“Hearing that story from someone living in that community adds a level of sophistication and nuance that we don’t get from people who just sort of helicopter in and then pull out,” said Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association.
It’s very easy to imagine well-meaning, left-leaning nonfiction filmmakers trying to bridge American cultures by making movies that patronize the very audience they’re trying to reach. Some films become “almost anthropological,” said Cara Cusumano, director of programming at the Tribeca Film Festival, “as they assume the audience is an outsider to the P.O.V. being represented, and there are often varying degrees of implicit and explicit critique.”
But it’s also true that a culture can be illuminated by the lens of an outsider.
“Steve James was a white suburbanite when he made ‘Hoop Dreams,’” the director Marshall Curry said, referring to the Chicago basketball documentary of 1994. “And most of the films about misunderstood and overlooked groups are made by people who aren’t part of that group.”
Sometimes that’s a problem, Mr. Curry admitted, because it’s easy to fetishize and misunderstand what’s being witnessed. But “outsiders notice things about us that we take for granted and don’t notice ourselves,” he said. “De Tocqueville was able to write the most important book on American culture because he was French.”
Mr. Curry’s 2010 film, “Racing Dreams,” is about go-kart racers with Nascar ambitions. It examines a kind of regional, cultural phenomenon usually ignored by American documentaries. Others arguably include “Hands on a Hard Body,” about Texans competing in a sleep-deprivation endurance test to win a pickup truck; and “We Always Lie to Strangers,” about Branson, Mo., the entertainment destination.
There may, in fact, be no real shortage of such documentaries. “I think that docs are sometimes perceived to be left-leaning as a way to discredit them,” the Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney said by email. “Of course, many docs are left-leaning. But some docs are about individual rights — lefties call these human rights — and moral concerns that aren’t political, as in Dems versus G.O.P., at all.”
But there does seem to be a shortage of red-state filmmakers, something that touches on the old debate over whether artists in general skew liberal.
“People who tend to be sensitive to the experiences of others have a more open and broad perspective and tend to be more progressive as a result,” Mr. Cogan said. “And artists are very empathetic people.”
Michael Pack would partly disagree. Now president and chief executive of the conservative think tank the Claremont Institute, and a veteran documentarian (“Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power”), he’s a former senior vice president for programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he was pitched projects that skewed right and left — but mostly left. “I do not believe that there are more left-wing filmmakers because creative talent exists only on the left and not on the right,” he said. “In my analysis, the documentary producers tend to be left of center, but that begins with film schools. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, or a hard bias.”
There are other explanations. “If making money is a conservative value,” the filmmaker David Wilson said, “documentary filmmaking isn’t how you do it.”
Mr. Wilson, co-director of “We Always Lie to Strangers,” is also a founder of True/False, the Columbia, Mo., film festival that has maintained a partnership with the evangelical Christian church the Crossing.
“We’ve found that what makes the relationship work is a shared interest in examining and confronting new ideas,” Mr. Wilson said. “That’s a rare thing on both sides of the fence.”
“I don’t think the path forward is ‘Let’s make different movies,’” he added. “The path forward is to engage more ideologies with the movies we do make.”
But such engagement takes strategy, said Arlie Russell Hochschild, a National Book Award finalist for “Strangers in Their Own Land,” for which she spent five years in Louisiana studying Tea Party followers and social politics. Does she think the nation’s two sides can be brought together? “Absolutely.”
But she said she would advise filmmakers who want to capture the attention and sympathies of more conservative audiences to use a different cast of characters, and different language: For a climate change film, for instance, tell them “we need to be free from these increasingly harsh hurricanes.”
Is that pandering? “It does suggest we’re having to leave our own moral grounding,” she said. “But given the people I’ve talked to, if you get right in front of them, they’re distressed that there’s a big gap, too. And there are a lot of crossover issues. Child care would be one. Reducing prison populations would be another. How to talk to them? Use people like them. And speak to, and through, their rhetoric.
“What it means,” she said, “is addressing them where they live.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the awards history of the documentary “The Eagle Huntress.” It was shortlisted for the Oscar; it was not nominated.