When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced, critics immediately seized upon the glaring lack of women recognized in the Best Director competition. But on the nonfiction side, it’s a completely different story.
In the Best Documentary Feature category, four of the five nominated films are directed or co-directed by women. In Best Documentary Short, it’s the same story—four of five nominees are directed or co-directed by women.
It’s also a year when Greta Gerwig was overlooked for Best Director in the fiction realm. “Narrative is so badly handling women,” comments Carol Dysinger, who earned an Oscar nomination for her short doc Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl). “But in my community, documentary, we do OK.”
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Among the women documentary filmmakers recognized with an Oscar nomination this year is Syrian-born Waad Al-Kateab, who directed For Sama with Edward Watts.
“Two days before the nominations, I was terrified that, no, we will not make it,” Al-Kateab confesses. “When we heard our name I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
For Sama tells the dramatic story of Al-Kateab’s effort to raise her baby daughter Sama in Aleppo as the city was bombed to ruins by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. It’s one of two documentaries about Syria to earn Oscar nominations this year; the other is The Cave, directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) and produced by two women, Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjær. The Cave’s main subject is Dr. Amani Ballour, the first woman physician to run a hospital in Syria, a subterranean facility near Damascus that came under constant bombardment by the same forces that attacked Aleppo.
Leading up to the nominations, conventional wisdom suggested only one Syria-themed doc could hope to land a nomination.
“For the Academy people to push these two [Syrian] films, it was for us the best thing that could ever happen,” Al-Kateab says. “That really will shed light on what’s happening in Syria now and make people [interested in] looking at our films.”
For Sama was produced by Britain’s Channel 4 and distributed in the U.S. by PBS. The Cave, meanwhile, comes from National Geographic, the company behind the 2019 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo.
Last year Netflix was shut out of the Oscar feature documentary nominations, but this year the streamer roared back, claiming two of the five slots in the feature doc category with The Edge of Democracy, directed by Petra Costa, and American Factory, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (Netflix also scored a nomination for Best Documentary Short with Life Overtakes Me, directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson).
Costa’s documentary explores what she sees as a crisis in the politics of her native Brazil, which has witnessed the kind of extreme polarization in the electorate that we’ve seen in the U.S. Some of the same factors have been in play in both countries—social media exacerbating those political divisions and, arguably, leading to a rise in nationalism and intolerance.
“The state of democracy in the world is very intertwined with the state of democracy in Brazil,” Costa asserts. “So, I think that from now on, there will be more international attention on the abuses of the rule of law that have been happening in Brazil, and for that to stop, because we’re really at the edge and we should all be concerned with this.”
American Factory takes viewers inside an auto glass plant outside Dayton, Ohio, that was built by a Chinese entrepreneur on the site of an old GM manufacturing facility. It’s a nuanced exploration of the challenges of putting two very different cultures together on the same factory floor—Chinese managers and workers who came with their perspective on getting the job done, and American hourly employees who felt increasingly disillusioned by low wages and tough working conditions.
Producer Jeff Reichert, director Julia Reichert’s nephew, believes American Factory has resonated with audiences because, “It’s a movie about people who work and have jobs, and how many of us out there do not have the luxury of not working or not having a job? Sure, not everybody works in a factory, not everybody does that kind of labor on that kind of schedule, but we all know pressure. We all know workplace insecurity. Almost everybody at this point has probably lost a job, lost a job that they liked, and maybe had to settle for a job that didn’t pay just as well.”
American Factory and The Edge of Democracy both premiered at Sundance, the independent film festival that so often serves as a forecaster or arbiter of Oscar documentary contenders. Honeyland, the other Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature this year, likewise debuted at Sundance, where it won three highly notable awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary.
On paper, Honeyland may sound like the unlikeliest of Oscar finalists—a story from North Macedonia about a woman named Hatidze who takes care of her ailing and elderly mother in a rustic hut, supporting them by cultivating honey from wild bees. But the film has consistently charmed and moved viewers, and connected with its compelling environmental message. Hatidze only takes half the honey from the hives, leaving the rest so the bee colony survives. “The point is to take as much as you need, not to take everything and then leave [nothing] for tomorrow and those who are providing for you. And it’s a universal message,” declares director Ljubomir Stefanov. His fellow director, Tamara Kotevska, agrees, adding, “The best comparison would be with modern consumerism, because this is like a microcosm that has the same rules as this world has about how consumerism destroys the natural resources completely.”
Honeyland not only earned a Best Documentary Feature nomination, but also scored a nomination for Best International Feature Film (the category formerly called Best Foreign Language Film). No film has ever before been nominated in both those categories.
While Sundance docs are well represented among the Oscar nominations, it’s not the only festival to enjoy bragging rights. The Cave premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and For Sama premiered last March at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
“We got into SXSW and that’s what transformed everything,” Watts says. “We tried to get into Sundance but the film was still not quite finished in time.”
At the SXSW awards ceremony, For Sama won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary and the audience award. When the grand prize was announced at the Paramount Theatre, Al-Kateab gave a shout from the audience and then bolted up from her seat straight towards the stage.
“I was running down to the [podium],” Al-Kateab recalls with a laugh. “I left him [Watts] behind.”
“She ran. She always runs,” Watts admits. “I’m always like the old man, chasing after.”
Members of the Academy’s Documentary Branch voted to determine the nominations for features and shorts. Then, the final vote is thrown open to the full Academy membership, who will determine which of the documentary filmmakers earn the right to walk, or even run, down that Dolby Theatre aisle to clasp their coveted Oscar statuettes.
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