Shakespeare warned to “beware the Ides of March,” but the 15th brought glad tidings to a select group of documentary feature filmmakers who earned coveted Oscar nominations.
Among them was Pippa Ehrlich, the South African-born director of the Netlix documentary My Octopus Teacher.
“I was surprised enough to jump about a meter and a half into the air,” Ehrlich tells Deadline of her reaction to the nomination. When we reached her she said she still didn’t quite have her feet on the ground. “I’m half way back down to Earth now. It’s been quite an afternoon.”
It was a similar feeling of elation for Romania’s Alexander Nanau, director of Collective, which earned nominations for both Documentary Feature and Best International Film.
“It was a bit like a football game, everybody jumping up,” Nanau says of watching the announcement live. “It’s the first time a Romanian film gets nominated at all and it was also nominated twice.”
Collective tells the story of a devastating fire at a Bucharest nightclub in 2014 that claimed more than a dozen lives initially and then dozens more among burn victims who succumbed in hospitals to preventable infections. Three of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature, in fact, come from abroad: My Octopus Teacher was filmed in South Africa, while The Mole Agent hails from Chile. Director Maite Alberdi’s amusing and touching film, which she calls a “documentary noir,” centers on an octogenarian amateur secret agent who went undercover to investigate conditions at an old folks home in Chile.
Alberdi says she’s delighted to see the Documentary Branch expand its horizons to films beyond American shores.
“It’s a sign of how the Academy has really changed in the last years and how they really incorporated foreign voices,” she notes. “They have been more open to other contexts, to other voices, to new styles.”
Ehrlich echoed that opinion. “I don’t know if it’s the rise of streaming platforms that have made international films more accessible to bigger audiences or if it’s the fact that the Academy has become increasingly international, but it’s really wonderful. Obviously, you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker and you watch the Oscars every year but you live in this little country at the tip of Africa, so to actually feel like you’re part of something like this, it’s surreal.”
American films were by no means ignored, however. Crip Camp, from Netflix and the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground, secured a nomination, as did Garrett Bradley’s Time. The latter film centers on Fox Rich, an African-American woman from Louisiana who spent two decades trying to get her husband freed from prison after he received a draconian sentence of 61 years for armed robbery. He was a first time offender but faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
“More than anything I think that the nomination is a testament to the power of love and to the story itself,” Bradley observes. “Nominations are at their best a sort of reflection of an expanded cultural consciousness. They reflect what matters to us as a society and I’m in solidarity with all of the issues that the other four beautiful films that I’ve been honored to be nominated—we’re in it together…I’m honored and grateful that Black love and Black joy but also the real issues behind incarceration are alongside that and are in the forefront.”
Nanau said he would spend the night gathering with the subjects of Collective, including intrepid journalists who exposed how corrupt medical suppliers and hospital officials watered down disinfectant to save a few Euros, a fatal shortcut that allowed infections to flourish in Romanian burn wards.
“Most of all for me this film is really a tribute to the victims and the survivors that had the courage to let us follow their lives,” Nanau comments. “It’s really a win for the independent, investigative journalists and the whistleblowers that are guardians of society and in our film you can really see that they can have an impact, a positive impact on society.”
The Academy has released few details on the makeup of the ceremony, other than to say it will take place in two venues: downtown LA’s Union Station and the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
“That’s great news that there’s a possibility for an in-person element to it,” says James Reed, who along with Ehrlich directed My Octopus Teacher. “Selfishly, that would be amazing for me. But who knows.”
Time‘s Bradley anticipates a great Oscars event, regardless of how it ultimately comes together.
“I know that no matter what it will be an evening of collective celebration and warmth and coming together in whatever capacity we’ll be able to manage,” she says, “in whatever capacity we can.”
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