Documentary filmmaking has become one of the most innovative and exciting forms of storytelling in recent years. In the 1940s, when Documentary Feature was first introduced as an Oscar category, the nominees most often came from branches of the US and Allied militaries, and honored propaganda films aimed at drawing more support for the war. After the war ended, the category continued, but usually with only two or three features in each lineup. In the 1950s, Walt Disney moved into the world of nonfiction film and won Oscars back to back in 1953 and 1954. In 1964, the Academy set the category at five nominees where it has stayed.
Recent winners in this category have told the stories of blending cultures in a midwestern manufacturing plant; an intense and death-defying ascent of Yosemite’s notorious El Capitan; a thriller that explores the dangerous recent history of doping in the sports world; and race and celebrity as it impacted a certain controversial retired athlete.
This year’s Documentary Features are a powerful blend of the inspirational and the tragic. With incredible feats of journalism, intimate and personal family records, sadness, and optimism, these five films each provide unique accounts of exceptional people in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.
Film: Collective (Magnolia Pictures)
Director: Alexander Nanau
Streaming on: Hulu
Romania’s nominee for International Feature is this exceptional documentary centering on a specific and very local health crisis with worldwide resonance. After a nightclub fire left 27 dead and 180 injured in Bucharest, the editor of a sports-related newspaper started looking into the surprisingly high rate of hospital deaths among the surviving wounded. This led to shocking discoveries about the quality of care and treatment in Romania’s healthcare system, as well as overwhelming levels of corruption.
Collective is an important reminder of the importance of good journalism and how it can bring about necessary change by bringing the powerful to account for their actions. The free press is under attack all around the world — for many reasons — and Alexander Nanau’s film is able to show us why we must protect and fight for it.
After more than a year living through a pandemic, though, as well as a tumultuous election campaign and worldwide uncertainty and tumult, Collective may be just a bit too serious and dark for voters this year, who will want to give their time to something a little more hopeful.
Film: Crip Camp (Netflix)
Director: James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
Streaming on: Netflix
Blending optimism and humor with essential and sometimes frustrating history, James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp is an inspirational story of the power that comes from giving marginalized people the chance to be seen, to exist among their peers, and to have their voices heard. Blending archival footage with present-day interviews, Crip Camp begins as something of an entertaining nostalgia piece about a summer camp for disable kids, before transforming into an account of how camp alums found the strength and courage to band together to support the passage of legislation that would make the world more accessible to the disabled.
Crip Camp has the charm, humor, and optimism to win over voters looking for a movie that will make them feel good. It’s also deep, poignant, and educational. Looking at the film as a whole, beyond the power of the central story, Crip Camp is a bit conventional in its style and composition. It is important and everyone should watch it, but if the Academy is looking for films that broaden the scope of documentary filmmaking, many voters will probably look to something different.
Film: The Mole Agent (Gravitas Ventures)
Director: Maite Alberdi
Streaming on: Hulu
Chile’s submission for International Feature didn’t make it into that lineup, but did land a spot among the year’s best documentaries. Maite Alberdi directs this sweet and captivating story that is part spy movie, part heartfelt reminder to keep our loved ones close. Romulo Aitken is a private detective who is hired by a family to investigate a possible case of elder abuse in a nursing home. Aitken decides to enlist an elderly man, Sergio Chamy, to go undercover and see what he can learn about the way the residents are treated. Instead, he discovers something much different. Sergio is the perfect star for a movie like this, and he brings a tremendous amount of heart and joy to a story that mercifully avoids being depressing.
Through The Mole Agent, Maite Alberdi shows one look at what is possible within the medium. Through her eyes, we glimpse a story that uses the principles of a narrative, lends a touch of genre, and finds a perfect balance of humor, heart, and chastisement to its audience. There are any number of reasons it deserves to be celebrated. Without much attention among precursors, it’s hard to know what the average Oscar voter think of it in general. But the nomination put a lot of deserved and needed attention on this well-traveled festival darling and will surely inspire new documentarians to go in new directions.
Film: My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Streaming on: Netflix
There is a clear favorite documentary this year and it is the feel-good story at the heart of My Octopus Teacher. Winning the BAFTA, PGA, and ACE Eddie awards, as well as nominations at various guilds, it seems almost impossible for any other film to emerge as this year’s Academy Award winner. Craig Foster details how a chance encounter with an octopus off the coast of South Africa helped him cope with difficulties and fractured relationships while finding a new direction for his life.
Beautiful cinematography and a hopeful message make this the documentary audiences have been drawn to in this emotionally fraught and difficult year. Perhaps My Octopus Teacher will benefit from bringing the spark of optimism that we’ve all been missing for so long. Maybe it speaks to something that lies within so many of us: our own need for connection. And when a film is able to reach viewers on such a deep and personal level, it’s hard to imagine anything else overtake it.
Film: Time (Amazon Studios)
Director: Garrett Bradley
Streaming on: Prime Video
Another astounding work of art, Time is a portrait of a family, a marriage, and a fight for justice. Culled from hundreds of hours of home videos, this intimate and personal account follows Sibil Fox Richardson on her mission to free her husband Rob from a 60 year prison sentence for armed bank robbery. It is also an essential examination of the difficulties kids face when forced to grow up without their father, and the way the system is designed to keep families apart.
Time was an early frontrunner in the race for Documentary Feature. But as we’ve seen over the years, this is not a category where early frontrunners usually fare well. Awards aside, Garrett Bradley has used her film to bring much needed attention to the issue of incarceration and the biases and racism that leave many disproportionately impacted by the so-called justice system. Attention is important and this film is essential viewing. But when it comes to the Academy, it seems as though voters will, unfortunately, pass this one over.