Time, directed by Garrett Bradley and produced by Amazon in partnership with Concordia Studio, enters Oscar season as a favorite, having won prizes from the New York and LA film critics organizations, and nominations from early awards shows, including the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
Bradley’s film tells the story of Fox Rich, a mother of six who fought tirelessly for the release of her husband who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for armed robbery. It’s a case study in the pernicious effect of mass incarceration, and particularly timely, given a societal reckoning with systemic racial injustice.
“Fox said to me and Robert [Fox’s husband] said to me, ‘Our story is the story of 2.3 million other American families and we feel that our story can offer hope,’” Bradley told filmmaker Ava DuVernay during a November Q&A. “I just said, ‘I am going to try to translate that cinematically, what hope looks like.’”
Amazon’s other major hopeful, All In: The Fight for Democracy, places the spotlight on systemic racism as manifested in the denial of voting rights to people of color. The film, directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, features former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who is credited with turning Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election through her voter registration campaign.
Netflix, naturally, won’t cede the Best Documentary contest to Amazon without a fight. The streamer has once again fielded a formidable slate, including Dick Johnson Is Dead, winner of best film at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The documentary is a poignant and surprisingly funny effort by director Kirsten Johnson, about coming to terms with her aging father’s mental and physical decline. She does so by creating fantasy sequences imagining his death.
“We’ll just kill dad over and over again and he’ll come back to life and we can do it until he really dies for real,” Johnson says of her concept. “That’s what I said to my dad, and he thought that was hilarious and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.’”
In a year that will shatter records for eligible documentaries, Netflix also contends with Disclosure, from director Sam Feder, and The Social Dilemma from director Jeff Orlowski—a documentary mixed with scripted elements that argue social media is damaging our politics, our social fabric and our mental health.
Netflix makes a further Oscar bid with Crip Camp, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. It’s built around archival footage from 1971 of a summer camp in upstate New York that gave young people with disabilities the opportunity to explore their identities in an atmosphere of inclusiveness and respect. Camp Jened was such a life-changing experience that many campers went on to seed the disability rights movement that took off in the late 1970s.
“I think this really is one of the great civil rights stories in American history, and it’s been very overlooked for a long time,” Newnham says. LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida and attended Camp Jened as a teenager, adds, “There were a number of people at the camp who really provided this sense that, ‘Oh my gosh, we can fight back. There are rights to be fought for.’”
Crip Camp comes from Higher Ground Productions, the company formed by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama that has a distribution deal with Netflix. Their debut film, American Factory, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last year.
In a list of his personal favorite fiction and non-fiction films of the year, President Obama highlighted Crip Camp, but also gave love to Garrett Bradley’s Time and to another documentary, Collective, directed by Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau. The latter film, from Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, won the best documentary prize from the Boston Society of Film Critics, in addition to awards from several European festivals.
Collective, about a tragic nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania in 2015 and its aftermath, highlights the work of intrepid reporters who exposed the government corruption and gross mismanagement that cost the lives of dozens of burn victims. The film underscores the importance of journalism in a democratic society—not just in Romania, but here too.
“We can only watch [the reaction] and in a way be happy that people get inspired by the film,” Nanau observes, “and it helps them reflect on their own societies.”
A journalist is likewise the hero of A Thousand Cuts, the film directed by Ramona Diaz on Philippine anchor/reporter Maria Ressa, CEO of the news website Rappler that has attempted to hold President Rodrigo Duterte to account.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the columnist for the Washington Post who was brutally slain in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, allegedly at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also takes center stage in two documentaries contending for Oscar recognition.
The Dissident, directed by Oscar winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus), unspools like a thriller, drawing on extraordinary footage and documents gathered by Turkish authorities who investigated Khashoggi’s 2018 killing.
Showtime’s Khashoggi documentary, Kingdom of Silence, directed by Rick Rowley, features Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, who in addition serves as an executive producer.
“I knew that Jamal lived a perilous life,” says Wright, who befriended Khashoggi in the wake of 9/11. “He had an entree into the world of Al-Qaeda and into the Saudi Royal family. And he lived in the West and he began to be the person who knew everything. He was really the spider in the web.”
There is not a single word of dialogue in one of the strongest contenders this Oscar season, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda from Neon. It stars the eponymous sow, grunting and snorting as she raises a passel of piglets on a farm in Norway. Supporting roles are played by cows and a remarkably agile one-legged chicken.
Actor and animal rights advocate Joaquin Phoenix executive produced the film, which has earned accolades around the world, including a nomination for best film by the International Documentary Association.
Neon, which factored in the Oscar race last year with Honeyland, also competes with The Painter and the Thief, winner of a special jury award for Creative Storytelling at Sundance. Benjamin Ree’s film begins with the theft of canvases painted by artist Barbora Kysilkova, which were swiped from a gallery in Oslo. Kysilkova later met one of the pilferers, Karl-Bertil Nordland, forming an unexpected bond with him.
“She’s really observant of people and emotions,” Ree says of the artist. “She was really attracted to the sadness and darkness of Bertil, but she finds the beauty in that. And I think that’s what makes her extraordinary.”
Among other documentaries vying for attention are two that take on the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. Cuba is the focus of Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at Sundance. Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall, meanwhile, centers on Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory saddled for years by a debt crisis and then decimated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The director finds nobility among islanders who banded together to save themselves in the wake of neglect from the U.S. and corruption by island officials.
“There’s a really quite instructive case study of communities caring for one another when their institutions fail them,” Aldarondo says. “I wanted people in Puerto Rico to not be seen as victims but as leaders, as global leaders, in a way that I think colonized people very rarely get to be.”
Director Dawn Porter boasts two films in contention: The Way I See It, about former White House photographer Pete Souza, and John Lewis: Good Trouble, about the late Congressman and Civil Rights movement hero.
MLK/FBI, directed by Sam Pollard, uses recently declassified files and restored archival footage to expose the FBI’s campaign under J. Edgar Hoover to vilify Martin Luther King Jr. Pollard is co-director of another contender, Mr. Soul!, a film about the pioneering TV host Ellis Haizlip, co-directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa.
Other films with a strong claim to Oscar attention include The Truffle Hunters, directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, a loving portrait of men and their dogs who search for the elusive fungi in Northern Italy, and Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent, a ‘documentary noir’ about a private eye who enlists an elderly man named Sergio to infiltrate a Chilean retirement home.
“Sergio was the worst spy in the world,” Alberdi notes with great amusement. “But for me he was a gentleman that I realized was good for the film.”
And that’s just for starters. The pandemic postponed the release of many fictional films in 2020, but the documentary race is still setting records for contenders.