ROAD TO OSCARS: Documentary Feature (2021)
On March 15 2021, the Oscar nominations will be announced and we will discover the five films in contention for Best Documentary Feature. We know that they will come from this list of fifteen films, which will advance in the Documentary Feature category for the 93rd Academy Awards. Two hundred and thirty-eight films were eligible in the category.
The films, listed in alphabetical order by title, are:
All In: The Fight for Democracy
Dick Johnson Is Dead
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
The Painter and the Thief
The Truffle Hunters
Welcome to Chechnya
I have seen 10 of the films from this list of 15 and want to take you through my opinions of them, plus what I think their chances are of being nominated/winning. 5 out of the 10 I’ve seen are directed or co-directed by women, so things are moving in the right direction in the world of documentaries, at least.
Sorry to these films: All In: The Fight for Democracy, Crip Camp and Notturno which I didn’t have time to watch. All In: The Fight for Democracy is available on Amazon Prime and Crip Camp is available on Netflix.
10. My Octopus Teacher (directed by Philippa Ehrlich and James Reed) – available on Netflix.
There are three very different approaches to documentaries involving animals on this list and this one takes entirely the wrong approach, in my opinion. South African photographer Craig Foster is the subject of this documentary and it is his words we hear throughout – whether in “pieces to camera” or in near-constant, highly irritating narration. He forms what is supposed to be a “heart-warming bond” with a female octopus and we follow her life over the course of a year. Foster clearly projects an awful lot onto this poor, unwitting animal and believes she is playing, dancing (flirting?!) with him. He makes a point of how hard he’s been working and that he needs a break to spend time with family and then spends every waking hour with his octopus girlfriend. I found Foster to be a insufferable hippy who attempts to force a twee ‘connection’ to a wild animal who was just trying live her life and should have been left alone! Horribly emotionally manipulative of its audience, a pretty unbearable watch.
Oscar chances: Unfortunately, it is extremely likely that this will be among the final five nominees.
9. The Mole Agent (directed by Maite Alberdi) – available on Hulu in the US.
At the heart of this documentary is a fascinating insight into an Old Folks’ Home in Chile, where we discover many lonely elderly ladies who are desperate for connection – with their families and with each other. Unfortunately, the highly contrived framing device completely distracts from what could have been something good. An ‘evil Bond villain’ type boss (complete with devices that could have been made by Q) hires a recently-widowed man in his 80s to go into the home as a ‘spy,’ to discover whether any mistreatment is happening. None of this makes any sense – the documentary cameras were already present in the home, which is surely all the ‘spying’ you need. We conveniently never meet the ‘client’ who has apparently assigned the case and who has zero grounds for the investigation. The dapper gentleman’s presence at the home is enough to cause a stir, simply by virtue of the fact he is man amongst a sea of ladies. There are heartbreaking moments, of course (one of the women keeps asking for her mother), but it’s hard to focus on the real emotions involved when there are so many distracting and completely unnecessary bells and whistles. A shame.
Oscar chances: I don’t see this getting into the final five and that’s okay by me!
8. Gunda (directed by Viktor Kossakovsky) – distributed by NEON, so will be available on Hulu eventually.
Gunda takes almost the exact opposite approach to My Octopus Teacher, with Kossakovsky at pains to prove how much of an “objective observer” he can be. The camera is very much fly-on-the-wall in this black-and-white documentary with no narration or musical score. The only sounds are the sounds of nature (until there is a shocking man-made intrusion towards the end). Mainly focusing on a pig and her piglets, but with occasional forays into the world of chickens and cows, we observe their natural behaviour in what looks like a pleasant free-range farm. This is like ASMR in documentary form, or one of those “SLOW TV” shows (a whole area of YouTube apparently) that are meant to be relaxing, like canal journeys, for example. This is all delightful enough (although the effect would have been much better in a cinema), up until the ending, where the agenda of the filmmakers (not least, Joaquin Phoenix, one of the producers) becomes abundantly clear.
Oscar chances: I cannot imagine the vast majority of Academy voters having the patience to sit through even five minutes of this.
7. The Painter and the Thief (directed by Benjamin Ree) – available on Hulu in the US.
An unlikely friendship forms between a painter and the man arrested for stealing her two most valuable paintings when she asks (at his trial) if she can paint him. Again, one that leaves you wondering about the construction of the documentary itself (when and how did the director become involved in the story?) and about how much the act of observation changes the subject, which is fitting, given that it’s a documentary about an artist who paints portraits. My favourite documentary of the year is also Scandinavian and also about a female painter – Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint. It would make an interesting double-bill with The Painter and the Thief. Read more in Jessica Pena’s FULL SUNDANCE REVIEW.
Oscar chances: I don’t think this one is getting in, despite being well-reviewed.
6. MLK/FBI (directed by Sam Pollard) – available on Amazon Prime Video.
With Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) highlighting the FBI surveillance of Frederick Hampton and the Black Panthers, One Night in Miami (2021) revealing Malcolm X’s fears of being followed and bugged, Seberg (2020) showing how Hakim Jamal was also targeted by Hoover and this now this documentary, it is clear that the American government were coordinated in their efforts to thwart the Civil Rights movement. Read more in Nia Tucker’s FULL TIFF REVIEW.
Oscar chances: Ordinarily, this would have a good shot of being nominated, but it’s a crowded field this year. It’s going to be tight!
5. The Truffle Hunters (directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw) – available in virtual cinemas in the US soon.
This year’s Honeyland (2019) is another fascinating insight into an almost-lost world of elders who are extremely skilled in what is becoming a lost art – in this case, hunting highly-prized white truffles in the Italian countryside using trained dogs. The highlight of this documentary is undoubtedly the relationship between the men and their dogs (a natural bond formed over years – take note, octopus-fancier) – particularly the main ‘character,’ a man in his 80s who talks and sings to his dog and worries what will become of her once he is gone. Like Honeyland, the cinematography is stunning and not just in the forests and surrounding countryside, but the domestic scenes eg. a man bathing his dog, are all treated with equal reverence. The night-time back-alley black market deals made when buying and selling the truffles are as exciting as any drug-dealing scene in a gangster film. A magical film.
Oscar chances: Unfortunately, this one will not get a look-in over all of the political and social commentary docs this year.
4. Time (directed by Garrett Bradley) – available on Amazon Prime Video.
Garrett Bradley is a wonderful director of shorts (eg. America) and has made a big impact with this feature-length documentary. Skilfully interweaving present day footage of a woman who has spent a lifetime campaigning for her husband’s release from prison with home-movie footage of the family in happier days, all in black and white, this is a well-edited and constructed film with a clear purpose and drive behind it. Read more in Sarah Buddery’s FULL LFF REVIEW.
Oscar chances: This should make the final five. It’s one of the best-reviewed films of the year and has done well with critics’ groups.
3. Boys State (directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine) – available on Apple TV.
I was trepidatious going into this (note that I’ve avoided watching All In: The Fight for Democracy and 76 Days) because I have not felt like seeking out contemporary political documentaries for the last…oh…four years. Watching a large amount of mostly white young men in Texas debate politics sounds like it’s going to be a nightmare and it certainly has its moments, but there is some hope to be found here. Read more in my FULL REVIEW.
Oscar chances: This is another one that would usually be a fairly safe bet, but it being Apple counts against it. Apple TV also had Beastie Boys Story – one of my favourite docs of the year!
2. Dick Johnson is Dead (directed by Kirsten Johnson) – available on Netflix.
Kirsten Johnson is known for her introspective documentary Cameraperson (2016) and again, puts herself in the spotlight in the delightful Dick Johnson is Dead. Choosing to commemorate your father’s last months, when his mind is not what it was, is a brave move for all involved. Johnson stages her father’s death (in increasingly outlandish and hilarious ways) as a way to help both of them cope with what is to come. She ends up with something I’m sure we would all love to have as a reminder of our family members. Dick Johnson successfully balances tones in all of the ways The Mole Agent does not. It is not easy at all, but Johnson is a master of her craft.
Oscar chances: I’ll be pleasantly surprised if this one makes it to the final five.
Collective (directed by Alexander Nanau) – available on VOD.
Collective is centred around a tragedy at a nightclub in Bucharest in 2015, which unfortunately triggers memories of Bataclan (Paris, 2015), Pulse (Orlando, 2016) and Manchester Arena (2017). But the event at the Colectiv nightclub wasn’t a mass shooting or terrorist attack, but a fire started by a band’s pyrotechnics. Less than half of the deaths were on the night of the fire, with the rest dying in hospital, mostly as a result of infections. This becomes the intense focus of a journalistic investigation which reveals mismanagement and corruption. The second half of the documentary which focuses on a young, idealistic health minister who attempts to challenge and change the corrupt system from within is perhaps even more enthralling than the first half.
Oscar chances: This highly acclaimed film surely has a place in the final five, but with it also being in contention in International Film, it could split the vote?
So, my predictions for the Final Five are: All In: The Fight for Democracy, Crip Camp (it has the Obamas backing!), Time, Collective and My Octopus Teacher. Welcome to Chechnya is going to be nominated for VFX, so also has a high chance of making it. It’s tough to call!