Oscar Hopefuls for Best Documentary Feature Offer Powerful Stories of Humanity

Oscar Hopefuls for Best Documentary Feature Offer Powerful Stories of Humanity

Ascension

STUDIO MTV Documentary Films

DIRECTOR Jessica Kingdon

TOP AWARDS National Board of Review top doc; 6 Critics Choice noms; PGA, Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards noms

It’s possible that Kingdon’s terrific documentary Ascension (winner of Tribeca’s top doc prize at this year’s edition) won’t rewrite your intellectual understanding of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” In lieu of a lecture, Kingdon’s film rather rewires your mental picture of contemporary China. Presented with no narrative and limited structure, Ascension is a collection of breathtaking images and revelatory vignettes that position China as a simultaneously alien and completely universal cultural and industrial landscape, never spelling out which direction points toward progress. Kingdon’s wholly observational film was filmed across 51 locations around China and uses “class” as its structure, such as it is. Ascension is loosely divided into three parts, starting with the workers in Chinese factories, moving into a middle class positioned at the pivot of a burgeoning consumer culture — salespeople, influencers and attendants to the rich — and finally the wealthy with their embrace of Western excess. — DANIEL FIENBERG

Attica

STUDIO Showtime

DIRECTOR Stanley Nelson

TOP AWARDS National Board of Review top doc; 3 Critics Choice noms

One of the most important roles a documentarian can play is to make sure that people tied to historical events are given an opportunity to share their memories while they can. It’s a mission that few directors pursue with the commitment of Nelson. The events that took place at Attica between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, 1971 — events that culminated in a team of armed figures retaking the prison and killing dozens of prisoners and hostages alike — have much of their context returned in Nelson’s documentary, which features interviews with prisoners, observers and family members of hostages and other figures connected to the prison. Nelson’s string of talking heads convey the human stories of a situation that too many people would try to drain of all humanity (for example, none of the prisoners mention the crime that led to their incarceration). But who better to express the atrocious conditions they were living under at Attica and to explain the reforms they were advocating, from improved medical care to fair disciplinary hearings. Who better to recall the betrayal of the deal the inmates thought they had made and the reasons it fell apart? — D.F.

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry

STUDIO Apple TV+

DIRECTOR R.J. Cutler

TOP AWARDS 4 Emmy noms; Critics Choice nom

There’s an interesting moment where singer-songwriter Eilish’s brother-producer-collaborator, Finneas O’Connell, explains to his and Billie’s mother, Maggie Baird, that he’s been told by the label to write a hit. The problem is that Billie, he notes, “hates writing songs in general and is … so woke about her own persona on the internet that she’s terrified of anything that she makes being hated. And her equation is that the more popular something is, the more hate it’s gonna get.” This is the paradoxical mathematics of musical cool, as eternal as pi or the speed of light: The more fans you get, the more fans you lose. In a stealthy way, R.J. Cutler’s vérité-style portrait is all about this dilemma, right down to the film’s own low-key rock-doc aesthetic as it observes Eilish and her family — a bit combative at times with one another as well as with the camera’s gaze, but always self-aware — living through a remarkable three-year period, from early breakout moments to Grammy-winning triumph. Billie may have her name in the title, but it feels as if Cutler is interested in her brother and actor-musician parents just as much, if not a little more. Fan service is amply provided by extensive musical interludes, showing Eilish performing on tour and composing in the home studio with Finneas. But the family drama is the real meat of the movie. It almost plays like a Highland Park hipster version of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, although as a family, the O’Connells have way more angst and innate talent (even if they seem, in their own boho way, as L.A. as you can get). — LESLIE FELPERIN

Faya Dayi

STUDIO Janus Films

DIRECTOR Jessica Beshir

TOP AWARDS 2 Critics Choice noms; Cameraimage, Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards noms

When Beshir was a teen, her family fled the political unrest in Ethiopia for the relative calm of Mexico. During return trips to her native land as a budding filmmaker over a period of 10 years, she captured what she saw in richly textured black-and-white. Faya Dayi is the mesmerizing result, a nonfiction work of sensory immersion that’s part anthropology, part poetry. Beshir’s first feature-length film braids together several threads, some more tightly than others. As it explores the walled city of Harar, its surrounding fields and the farming of khat, a plant whose leaves are chewed for their psychoactive effect, it can at times feel diffuse. At its strongest, the documentary fuses matters of myth and tradition with questions of economic change, political strife and personal longing — notably in the fine alchemy of its closing sequences. — SHERI LINDEN

The First Wave

STUDIO NAT GEO

DIRECTOR Matthew Heineman

TOP AWARDS International Documentary Association Pare Lorentz Award; 2 Critics Choice noms; Producers Guild Awards nom; Cinema Eye Awards nom

During the first 10 minutes of The First Wave, amid the emergency room commotion, the urgent ministrations of rapid response teams and the general state of alarm, a refrain arises: “Do we have a pulse?” It’s March 2020, and death is all around. Now, Heineman’s intensely intimate documentary is a graphic and emotional reminder of the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, in all its confusion and horror. It’s also a breathtaking testament to the fight to live, the calling to heal and the power of human connection. The First Wave is a remarkable piece of reportage from the belly of the beast. In this case that means Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ), a Queens hospital that was especially hard-hit by an influx of COVID-19 patients at a time when New York City was the U.S. epicenter of the virus. In its focus on an internist and two struggling but determined patients and their families, Heineman’s masterfully crafted film is a work of high-impact drama. — S.L.

Flee

STUDIO Neon/Participant

DIRECTOR Jonas Poher Rasmussen

TOP AWARDS Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize; National Board of Review top doc; Gotham Award for best documentary; 4 Annie Award noms; 2 Critics Choice noms; 2 IDA noms; Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, and PGA Awards noms

There’s a genre-defying boldness to Danish writer-director Rasmussen’s Flee, which mixes mood-driven, hand-drawn animation with archival footage to trace the harrowing history and lasting psychological scars of an Afghan man hiding from his past for the two decades since being granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a child. It’s a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary. In addition to its value as a perceptive examination of the lasting trauma imprinted on the minds of vulnerable young refugees, Flee also stands out as an unconventional queer love story, revealing how complete acceptance of one’s own troubled identity is essential in order to find love, marriage and stability. — DAVID ROONEY

In the Same Breath

STUDIO HBO Max

DIRECTOR Nanfu Wang

TOP AWARDS SXSW Audience Award; Independent Spirit, IDA and PGA Awards noms

In the closing moments of her blistering account of government and media mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic in both China and the U.S., director Wang says: “I have lived under authoritarianism, and I have lived in a society that calls itself free; in both systems, ordinary people become casualties of their leaders’ pursuit of power.” The first half of Wang’s film is an urgently immersive recap of the chaos that gripped Wuhan at the start of the outbreak in early 2020. The second half turns its haunted gaze to the arrival of the virus on American shores and the refusal to heed ample warning signs and contain the foreseeable spread. Wang deftly balances factoids with firsthand experiences to show the emotional cost, both for people unable to say goodbye to their loved ones and for frontline health care workers and funeral home staff, absorbing the trauma of unrelenting losses. The eloquent solemnity of row upon row of new gravestones in a Wuhan cemetery strikes a plangent chord as Wang reflects on authoritarian leaders using national crises to push through autocratic measures. — D.R.

Julia

STUDIO Sony Pictures Classics

DIRECTOR Julie Cohen and Betsy West

TOP AWARDS 2 Critics Choice noms

America’s first lady of food, Julia Child, receives an affectionate and respectful but also quietly sensuous tribute. Just as its subject — the cookbook writer and TV cooking show pioneer — managed to do with French food for the American masses, this serves up traditional bio-doc fare but tweaks the formula and ingredients ever so slightly, adding highly styled macro-shot cooking sequences in order to suit the palates of food-loving viewers of a certain age. The result is a little safe and a teensy bit dull compared to some of the more adventurous efforts in the world of film-as-food-porn these days, but that’s fine. This will hit the spot for viewers and possibly awards-bestowing bodies who hunger for stories of audacious, norm-shattering women. — L.F.

President

STUDIO Greenwich Entertainment

DIRECTOR Camilla Nielsson

TOP AWARDS Sundance Special Jury Award; Gotham Awards nom

The 2018 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, fought between former Vice President Emmerson “the Crocodile” Mnangagwa and the bright young opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa, were a dismal affair rife with election fraud, if you follow the persuasive arguments mounted by documaker Nielsson in President. Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer running on an anti-corruption, pro-employment platform, is obviously the people’s candidate, but can his team buck the dirty tricks and ballot-stuffing of his adversary? It’s a through-the-looking-glass moment in history that can’t help but echo the recent election furor in you-know-what-country. Being all about stolen elections, President has an extraordinary topicality that’s a double-edged sword because while it will gain from the global interest stirred by the 2020 American elections, it also may fall victim to many viewers’ emotional burnout and spent moral indignation. But it gets its chance to engage American audiences in another bitterly contested electoral battle, complete with armed riot police, chaotic press conferences and civilian casualties. — DEBORAH YOUNG

Procession

STUDIO Netflix

DIRECTOR Robert Greene

TOP AWARDS Critics Choice, Independent Spirit and IDA Awards noms

Memories of trauma — buried deep within the body, locked in a casket of shame — are difficult to excavate. Remembering can be a different kind of violence, so the mind resists recollecting that which has been shunned in the name of self-protection. But what happens when concealing no longer provides a certain level of safety? When the memories erupt and, in an astonishing turn of events, the mind betrays the body? Greene’s Procession is a stirring film that answers these questions with deep sincerity and generosity. The documentary follows six men in Kansas City, Missouri, who were abused by Catholic priests and clergy, as they, through an experiment inspired by drama therapy, attempt to exorcise their trauma. As they perform the stories of their life, the work — both the documentary and the exercise — yields fascinating and cathartic results. — LOVIA GYARKYE

The Rescue

STUDIO NAT GEO

DIRECTOR Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

TOP AWARDS 3 Critics Choice Awards; National Board of Review top doc; PGA Awards nom

Hollywood superhero and disaster movies pale in comparison to the thrills offered by the new documentary directed by the husband-and-wife team of Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin. Relating the story of the heroic efforts of an international team of rescuers to save the members of a teenage soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, The Rescue keeps you on the edge of your seat for every minute, even if you already know the outcome. The documentary chronicles the weeks-long 2018 mission that riveted the world after 12 boys, ages 11 to 16, in the Wild Boars soccer team and their 25-year-old coach became trapped deep within in the miles-long Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. — FRANK SCHECK

Simple as Water

STUDIO HBO Max

DIRECTOR Megan Mylan

TOP AWARDS IDA and PGA Awards noms

Nearly 20 years after co- directing the acclaimed Lost Boys of Sudan, filmmaker Mylan (an Oscar winner for the 2008 documentary short Smile Pinki) once again points her lens toward those who are displaced by civil war. Filmed over five years and across five different countries, Simple as Water follows Syrian families impacted by the country’s violent political clashes. Rather than focusing on the reasons why these four families have been torn apart, Mylan provides snapshots of their everyday lives in limbo as they wait for permanent homes or seek ways to reunite with their relatives. Depicting refugees in Turkey, Greece and Philadelphia — as well as back home in Syria — the film proves there is no single story of migration and displacement and provides many human faces to a struggle most viewers may never encounter themselves. —TYLER COATES

Summer of Soul

STUDIO Hulu

DIRECTOR Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

TOP AWARDS Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award; AFI Special Award; National Board of Review best documentary; 6 Critics Choice Awards; 4 IDA Awards noms; Gotham, Independent Spirit and PGA Awards noms

Not many people know his name, but half a century ago, Tony Lawrence created something extraordinary in the middle of New York City. And few people know the name Hal Tulchin, but he documented the feat. It was called the Harlem Cultural Festival, and over six weekends in the summer of 1969, it showcased more than five dozen acts and drew 300,000 people who were charged not a cent to see the likes of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers and Sly and the Family Stone. But this monumental alignment of the stars — what some would later refer to as the Black Woodstock — generated little media attention, in part because it was overshadowed by the actual Woodstock, which took place during the Harlem event’s penultimate weekend and just a couple of hours north. The local CBS station aired a few highlights, but on a national scale, there were no takers. Thus Summer of Soul — Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s electrifying documentary on those concerts and the political climate in which they unfolded — is subtitled with a riff on an immortal turn of phrase from the late great Gil Scott-Heron: Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised. The footage sat in storage for decades, until Summer of Soul‘s producers set the ball rolling to give it its long-overdue spotlight. At the helm of a feature-length film for the first time, Thompson lends the long-lost material the eye of an assured director, approaching it on three eloquently interwoven narrative tracks: the knockout concerts themselves; a piercing capsule portrait of 1969 as a turning point in Black identity; and a collection of lovely, charged boomer reminiscences from those who were there, some onstage and some in the audience. The film captures several of them as they view the previously unseen footage, dazzling evidence of a moment in time that seemingly had been written out of the official story. — S.L.

The Velvet Underground

STUDIO Apple TV+

DIRECTOR Todd Haynes

TOP AWARDS 4 Critics Choice noms; IDA Awards nom

Haynes understands the assignment and then some in his exhaustively contextualized appreciation of the band that is as much a part of the cultural imprint of 1960s New York City as Andy Warhol’s Factory, the creative hub with which The Velvet Underground was inextricably linked. Making ingenious use of split-screen, experimental montage and densely layered images and sound over two fabulously entertaining hours, Haynes puts his distinctive stamp on the material while crafting a work that could almost have come from the same artistic explosion it celebrates. Echoes of Haynes’ glam-rock odyssey Velvet Goldmine and his idiosyncratic Bob Dylan bio-drama I’m Not There run through the film, as do nuggets of Warholiana like Chelsea Girls. In the breadth of its observations about the restless creative energy of the time, Haynes’ film is as much a sweeping study of a radical art movement as a behind-the-music exploration of one great epochal band. Black-and-white, portrait-style footage of Lou Reed and fellow VU founder John Cale, shot by Warhol — who required them to remain silent, not to smile, and to blink as little as possible — provides a mesmerizing motif as observations from the two of them and others who were part of the scene play simultaneously in audio and filmed interviews. The wealth of archival photography and footage of news and cultural events that shaped the era is extraordinary. — D.R.

Writing With Fire

STUDIO Music Box Films

DIRECTOR Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

TOP AWARDS Sundance Audience Award and Special Jury Award; Telluride Special Jury Prize; 2 PGA Awards noms

A group of 20 or so women — young, barefoot and in saris — sit in a circle on the floor. Comprising the staff of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-female newspaper (whose title translates to “waves of news”), the women are told that the publication will expand its online operations soon, and they must adapt. Writing With Fire follows three reporters at Khabar Lahariya — and, in so doing, portrays an India in flux. Times are changing, but not fast enough for these brave and idealistic women, whose mission to improve their corner of the world through their reportage invariably runs into resistance from officials, interviewees and their own husbands or fathers. The documentary is best at offering a peek into the lives of Khabar Lahariya‘s scrappy, self-made women, who are well aware that they are claiming for themselves a profession largely occupied by upper-class men. — INKOO KANG

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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