Netflix has dominated the Oscar documentary race in recent years, winning Best Feature Film in 2020 and 2018. But this year it could be Amazon Studios’ Time shine.
Time, directed by Garrett Bradley and produced by Amazon in partnership with Concordia Studio, enters Oscar season as a frontrunner, having won awards from film critics organizations in New York and Los Angeles, and nominations in top awards, including Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
Bradley’s film tells the story of Fox Rich, a mother of six who fought tirelessly for the release of her husband who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for armed robbery. This is a case study on the pernicious effect of mass incarceration, and particularly timely given that society views racial injustice as systemic.
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“Fox said to me and Robert [Fox’s husband] told me, “Our story is the story of 2.3 million other American families and we believe our story can offer hope,” Bradley told filmmaker Ava DuVernay during a shoot of questions and answers in November. “I just said, ‘I’m going to try to translate this cinematically, what hope looks like.'”
Amazon’s other great hope, All In: the struggle for democracy, highlights the systemic racism that manifests itself in the denial of the right to vote to people of color. The movie, directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, features former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who is credited with Georgia bluing in the 2020 presidential election thanks to her voter registration campaign.
Netflix, naturally, won’t cede the Best Documentary competition to Amazon without a fight. The streamer has once again lined up a formidable slate, including Dick Johnson is dead, winner of the best film at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The documentary is a poignant and surprisingly funny effort by director Kirsten Johnson, on solving the mental and physical decline of her aging father. She does this by creating fantastic sequences imagining her death.
“We’re just going to kill daddy over and over and he’ll come back to life and we can do that until he really dies for real,” Johnson says of his concept. “That’s what I said to my dad, and he thought it was hilarious and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.’ ‘
In a year that will shatter records for eligible documentaries, Netflix is also fighting against Disclosure, by director Sam Feder, and The social dilemma from director Jeff Orlowski – a documentary mixed with scripted elements that claim that social media is damaging our politics, our social fabric and our mental health.
Netflix makes a new Oscar offering with Camp Crip, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. It is built around archival footage from 1971 of a summer camp in upstate New York, which gave disabled youth the opportunity to explore their identities in an atmosphere of inclusiveness. and respect. Camp Jened was such a life changing experience that many campers started the disability rights movement which took off in the late 1970s.
“I think this is really one of the great civil rights stories in American history, and it has been very neglected for a long time,” Newnham says. LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida and attended Camp Jened as a teenager, adds: “There were a number of people at the camp who really gave that feeling that, ‘Oh my God, we can fight. . There are rights for which we must fight. “”
Camp Crip comes from Higher Ground Productions, the company formed by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama that has a distribution agreement with Netflix. Their first film, American factory, won the Oscar for Best Documentary last year.
In a list of his favorite fiction and non-fiction films of the year, President Obama highlighted Camp Crip, but also gave love to Garrett Bradley Time and another documentary, Collective, directed by Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau. This latest film, from Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Documentary Award, in addition to awards from several European festivals.
Collective, on the tragic fire of a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, in 2015 and its aftermath, highlights the work of intrepid journalists who exposed government corruption and blatant mismanagement that claimed the lives of dozens of burned people. The film highlights the importance of journalism in a democratic society – not just in Romania, but here as well.
“We can only watch [the reaction] and in a way being happy that people are inspired by the film, “observes Nanau,” and that helps them reflect on their own societies.
A journalist is also the hero of A thousand cuts, the film directed by Ramona Diaz about the Filipino presenter / journalist Maria Ressa, CEO of the Rappler news site who tried to hold President Rodrigo Duterte to account.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was brutally killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also takes center stage in two documentaries vying for recognition of the Oscars.
The dissident, directed by Oscar winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus), unfolds like a thriller, drawing on extraordinary images and documents assembled by Turkish authorities who investigated Khashoggi’s murder in 2018.
Showtime Documentary on Khashoggi, Kingdom of silence, directed by Rick Rowley, stars Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, who is also an executive producer.
“I knew Jamal led a perilous life,” says Wright, who befriended Khashoggi in the aftermath of 9/11. “He had an entry into the world of Al Qaeda and into the Saudi royal family. And he lived in the West and he started to be the know-it-all person. He really was the web spider.
There isn’t a single word of dialogue in one of this season’s strongest Oscar contenders, Victor Kossakovsky Gunda of Neon. It features the eponymous sow, growling and snorting as she raises a piglet passel on a farm in Norway. Cows and a remarkably agile one-legged chicken play supporting roles.
Actor and animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix produced the film, which won accolades around the world, including a nomination for Best Picture by the International Documentary Association.
Neon, who took into account the Oscar race last year with Honeyland, is also in competition with The painter and the thief, winner of a Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling at Sundance. Benjamin Ree’s film begins with the theft of canvases painted by artist Barbora Kysilkova, which were removed from a gallery in Oslo. Kysilkova later encountered one of the looters, Karl-Bertil Nordland, forming an unexpected bond with him.
“She’s really attentive to people and emotions,” Ree says of the artist. “She was really drawn to Bertil’s sadness and obscurity, but she finds beauty in it. And I think that’s what makes her extraordinary.
Among the other documentaries vying for attention, there are two that pick up on the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. Cuba is Hubert Sauper’s focus Epicentro, winner of the World Documentary Jury Grand Prize at Sundance. Cecilia aldarondo Landing, meanwhile, focuses on Puerto Rico, the American territory struggling for years by a debt crisis and then decimated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The director finds nobility among the islanders who have come together to save themselves as a result of US negligence and corruption by island officials.
“There is a really very informative case study of communities that take care of each other when their institutions fail,” says Aldarondo. “I wanted the people of Puerto Rico not to be seen as victims, but as leaders, as world leaders, in a way that I think the colonized very rarely get to be.”
Director Dawn Porter has two films in the running: The way i see it, about former White House photographer Pete Souza, and John Lewis: Good problem, about the late congressman and hero of the civil rights movement.
MLK / FBI, directed by Sam Pollard, uses recently declassified files and restored archival footage to expose the FBI campaign under J. Edgar Hoover to vilify Martin Luther King Jr. Pollard is another candidate’s co-director, Mr. Soul!, a film about pioneer TV host Ellis Haizlip, co-directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa.
Other films with a high demand for Oscar attention include The truffle hunters, directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, a loving portrait of men and their dogs in search of elusive mushrooms in northern Italy, and Maite Alberdi Mole agent, a “black documentary” about a private detective who hires an elderly man named Sergio to infiltrate a Chilean retirement home.
“Sergio was the world’s worst spy,” Alberdi notes with great amusement. “But to me, he was a gentleman who I realized was good for the movie.”
There are many other films that can make a strong case for their inclusion on the Oscar finalist list, which will be revealed on February 9. Softie, Mayor, Town hall, Welcome to Chechnya, Boys state and 76 days.
And this is only for beginners. The pandemic has delayed the release of many fictional films to 2020, but the documentary race is still on records for contenders.