While an all-male list of director contenders and a mostly white actors roster caught the eye of the diversity-conscious on Oscar nominations day, another blip signaled deep change within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That is, four out of five documentary feature nominees—The Cave, The Edge Of Democracy, For Sama, and Honeyland— came from outside the United States, and leaned heavily into foreign languages, including Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Macedonian, and Serbo-Croatian dialects. Meanwhile, the single largely American nominee—American Factory, from Netflix—featured a number of Chinese factory managers in Ohio, and communicated partly in Mandarin.
This is new, and not an accident.
In eight of the prior ten years, there were at least three nominated documentary features of U. S. origin, and never fewer than two. Even in 2013, when How To Survive A Plague and The Invisible War were the only American entries, the year’s winner—a Swedish-Finnish-British production called Searching For Sugar Man—was about an international folk-pop sensation from Detroit.
In terms of subject matter, the last decade’s nominees looked at American wars (as in Dirty Wars, Restrepo, or Last Days In Vietnam), American business (Food Inc., Gasland or Inside Job), American music (20 Feet From Stardom, What Happened Miss Simone?, the aforementioned Sugar Man), American justice (Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, RBG), and the African-American experience (as in I Am Not Your Negro, O. J.: Made In America, and 13th, all nominated in 2017).
The contrast with this year’s crop could not be sharper. In 2020, there is no African-American themed documentary feature nominee, though there might have been—Apollo, about Harlem’s Apollo Theater, was on the shortlist. Also on the list were Apollo 11 (which just won a Producers Guild of America award), about landing on the moon; The Biggest Little Farm, about homesteading some acreage near Los Angeles; The Great Hack, about Cambridge Analytica; and Knock Down The House, about activist campaigns for Congress.
But none of those rang the bell with roughly 500 documentary branch voters. They went instead with a Macedonian beekeeper in Honeyland, Brazilian politics in The Edge Of Democracy, and Syrian war, twice, in The Cave and For Sama.
Again, this globalist drift is not unintended. As an inclusion-minded Academy sharply expanded its ranks in the last few years, its doc branch was especially aggressive in adding new members. Almost 100 were invited in 2019, and nearly that many the year before, pointing toward growth of 50 percent or more in just two years. According to the Academy, over half of last year’s documentary invitees were women: No surprise, then, that three of this year’s nominees—Honeyland, The Cave and For Sama—had feminist themes. Precisely how many of the new members live and work mostly outside the United States is difficult to say, because globally minded filmmakers move around quite a lot. But it’s clear that a great many hail from the 60 or so foreign nations represented in the recent invitation lists. (Those include Feras Fayyad, the Syria-born Cave director who as of last week was stuck in Copenhagen, waiting for a visa, with support from U. S. distributor National Geographic, to attend awards shows here).
The rapid globalization of the documentary branch has brought a matching globalization of taste. In future years, that’s not likely to reverse. Gone are the days when the underlying Americanism of an Apollo 11, or the African-American sensibilities of Apollo, could snag a nomination. The only remaining question is whether changes in the documentary branch portend changes across the board, making it tougher in future years for specifically American, or African-American, contenders to prevail.