On Oscar nomination morning, director RaMell Ross tuned in to see if his documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening would make the cut. A year earlier it would have seemed like the longest of long shots, a film without major distribution that defied easy description, dealing with African-American life in the rural South.
Yet when nominations co-host Tracee Ellis Ross (no relation) announced the documentary feature category, there it was: Hale County had beaten the odds.
“I was at home with my partner. We woke up 10 minutes before the announcement, not to stress too much,” Ross recalls. “And then when it happened we both looked at each other and continued watching. We let time pass just to make sure they didn’t back up and go, ‘We actually made a mistake.’”
What Hale County’s nomination tells us is that Oscar Documentary Branch voters gave due consideration to all the shortlisted contenders—even ‘smaller’ films without prominent backing—and did not simply crown the year’s biggest box office hits. Indeed, the giant shock from the announcements was the absence of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which earned an incredible $22.8 million in theatrical release.
Neighbor may have peaked too soon, registering its greatest impact last summer, only to cede some of the buzz to doc blockbusters that followed—first Three Identical Strangers and then Free Solo, which is still playing theatrically after opening in September. Of those three films only Free Solo wound up with a nomination.
Free Solo, about climber Alex Honnold’s death-defying ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, not only benefitted from stellar returns—over $13.5 million to date—but from robust promotional efforts from directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The filmmaking couple worked hard to keep their film top of mind with voters, appearing at multiple pre-nomination panel discussions including one mounted by the Asian Coalition of AMPAS.
Paradoxically, being unable to campaign may have ultimately benefitted Talal Derki, the Syrian-born director of Of Fathers and Sons. Derki, who is based in Berlin, received significant media attention after he was denied a visa by the State Department to come to the U.S. in support of his film. The Trump administration eventually granted the director permission to visit, but that decision came on January 14, the final day of Oscar nomination voting.
Of Fathers and Sons represents the sole international-focused documentary to earn an Oscar nomination this year. Derki posed as a jihadist sympathizer to gain access to a militant Islamist family in Northern Syria, creating a compelling portrait of family patriarch Abu Osama and his eight sons. The fate of the boys remains uncertain—some were dispatched to jihadist training camps as Derki filmed—but the director recently learned of Osama’s demise.
“The main character got killed when he was dismantling a car bomb that was sent to them by another group. It exploded in his face. So he was doing his job,” he notes ruefully. “The film is showing how his life is dangerous, how he really wanted to be martyred, so he got his request.”
Documentaries like Of Fathers and Sons and Hale County, where the filmmaker had strong emotional ties to the material, appeared to resonate most with voters. Such was the case with Minding the Gap, which earned an Oscar nomination for 30-year-old director Bing Liu. His film tells a deeply personal story of childhood trauma that he and two friends endured as they grew up in the rustbelt town of Rockford, Illinois.
In earlier iterations of the film Liu focused just on his skateboarding buddies Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, and didn’t include himself. He later decided to incorporate his own experience of abuse at the hands of his late stepfather, and shot a powerful scene with his mother in which they discuss the family’s dysfunctional dynamics.
“I didn’t really see a need to put myself in the film, just on a storytelling level—like, why would I be in the film?” Liu says about his earlier ambivalence. What changed his mind, he notes, was learning that his friend Zack had been abusive to his girlfriend Nina.
“And from that I really had to rethink what the film was; what gives me the right to go there,” Liu explains. “I think interviewing my mom was an attempt to do that and it ended up working.”
The Academy has been criticized in some years for failing to recognize a diverse array of talent. But in the Documentary Feature category not a single white male director claimed a nomination, a point not lost on Tabitha Jackson, who heads the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program.
“It’s notable,” Jackson says. “The question one then asks is, is this a blip or is there a reason why this has happened this year? And I think one answer might be, with the Academy intentionally opening up the people who are voting members to be more representative of the population at large, and certainly of the filmmaking population, it means that you’re going to get a different kind of film recognized, anointed and projected forward.”
Two women—Betsy West and Julie Cohen—directed RGB, the hit documentary that also claimed an Oscar nomination this year. The film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made just over $14 million in 2018.
RBG’s fortunes with the Academy have been boosted by what might be called the Icarus effect. That film, about Russia’s secret athletics doping program, was constantly in the news last year because its Oscar campaign coincided with the Winter Olympics in South Korea, where the Russian team was officially banned for the very practices uncovered in Icarus.
In like fashion, worries about Justice Ginsburg’s health have kept the jurist, and RBG, fresh in the minds of voters. In November of last year she fractured ribs in a fall and the following month doctors discovered cancerous nodules on her lung. The filmmakers have become unofficial spokespeople for Ginsburg as she recovers from cancer surgery.
“I can tell you from observing her over the almost two years that we were filming, she is a woman of extraordinary stamina,” West told Deadline in late December. “She is one tough cookie.”
This year’s Oscar documentary nominations are noteworthy for other reasons, among them the absence of a Netflix-produced film. Netflix went all the way last year with Icarus, but the streamer’s big contender this time, Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, came up short. Meanwhile, rival streaming service Hulu scooped up a nomination with Minding the Gap.
The nominations also underscore the importance of the Sundance factor. Four of the five nominated documentaries premiered at the film festival last January (only Free Solo premiered elsewhere—at the Telluride Film Festival), further evidence of Sundance’s role as the preeminent launching pad for awards-contending nonfiction movies.
“In addition to four of the nominated films premiering at the festival, three of the films were supported by the [Sundance Institute’s] documentary film program,” Jackson notes. “That is also gratifying.”
Odds are many of the documentaries that will vie for Oscars next year just made their debut in the snows of Sundance 2019.