Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:
Today, Doug Jamieson of The Jam Report is here to look at the nominees for Best Documentary Feature.
Predicting the eventual winner for Best Documentary Feature has often been a difficult task. Ultimately, you must put yourself in the mindset of the average Academy member and it’s anyone’s guess if most voters ultimately watch all five nominees or simply pick the most buzzed-about doco nominee each year.
It doesn’t help for the last three years in a row, the winner of the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary Motion Picture has ultimately failed to even receive an Academy Award nomination, with Apollo 11 becoming the latest documentary to fall victim to this unfathomable curse. The unfortunate title of being the documentary frontrunner now appears to ruin your Oscar chances entirely.
Regardless, the Academy have picked five fantastic documentaries this year with four of the five nominees co-directed by female filmmakers. Let’s take a look at this year’s line-up.
Standing as the first film produced by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is one of two Netflix documentaries nominated this year. Filmed over the course of two years, American Factory is a fly-on-the-wall look at the cultural clashes that occur when a high-tech Chinese manufacturing company seeks to reinvigorate an abandoned General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. An eye-opening documentary that challenges the way many would view such a takeover, American Factory invites us to see these events from a different perspective. With the power of both the Netflix brand (which doesn’t appear to be so poisonous in the documentary category) and the Obamas involvement (sure, they’re not nominated, but Netflix has been heavily pushing their collaboration), American Factory seems the obvious winner here.
The first of two nominated documentaries to focus on the people of Syria, The Cave profiles Dr. Amani Ballour, a female doctor in Ghouta who operates a makeshift hospital within a cave during the ongoing Syrian Civil War. An unflinching portrait of the female experience in a country dominated by patriarchal culture, The Cave highlights the work of several women performing work they would likely be forbidden from executing outside the cave walls. As Dr. Ballour contends with daily bombings, dwindling supplies, and electrical failures, The Cave captures her unrelenting determination to saves the lives of those with nowhere else to go. Director Feras Fayyad came achingly close to winning this category in 2018 with Last Men in Aleppo, so he could take it home this year, especially after being granted permission into the U.S. to attend the ceremony, which was not the case two years ago.
The Edge of Democracy
A powerful cautionary tale with deep relevance to the challenges faced by practically every democratic nation around the globe, The Edge of Democracy is a riveting look at the sociopolitical and economic crisis that swept Brazil in 2014. Standing as one of the most dramatic moments in Brazilian history, the documentary captures the rise and fall of two presidents and the ensuing crisis that crippled the nation. These divisive events saw the removal of one president, the imprisonment of the next, and the rise of a new nationalist president whose right-wing views are currently creating havoc in the once liberal nation. It’s an uncomfortable documentary to view, given the parallels it draws with the rise of nationalism in other nations, but therein lies its immense power.
If there is a dark horse challenger to snatch the trophy from American Factory, it has to be Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ For Sama, which is one of the most confronting and difficult documentaries of recent times. The film is coming into the Oscars with a strong run of awards success in Britain, including a recent win at the BAFTAs for Best Documentary plus nominations for both Best Film Not in the English Language and Outstanding British Film. It also swept the British Independent Film Awards, taking home Best British Independent Film, Best Documentary, Best Director, and Best Editing. Filmed over several years by Al-Kateab, For Sama focuses on her experiences as one of the few doctors left in Aleppo, as she and her husband Hamza struggle with the choice to flee to safety or stay behind and help the innocent victims of war. As devastating and heartbreaking as it may be, For Sama is a powerful tribute to the strength of the human spirit.
While it strangely may not have captured the headlines it deserved, Honeyland made history at this year’s Academy Awards by becoming the first documentary to receive nominations for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film). It’s curious this hasn’t seen it leap to frontrunner status, so perhaps we’re all underestimating its chances. Double nominations show the Academy love this documentary and that could easily translate into a win here. Honeyland focuses on Hatidže Muratova, a Macedonian beekeeper who’s considered the last female bee-hunter in Europe. Without the use of electricity or running water, Muratova uses traditional techniques are thrown into chaos by the arrival of a neighbouring beekeeping family whose modern methods threaten to destroy the entire ecosystem. A powerful contemplation on consumerism and capitalism, Honeyland is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking.
So what should you place on your Oscar ballot for Best Documentary Feature? The smart choice would be American Factory, especially without former frontrunner Apollo 11 in the hunt. Of the five nominees, it’s likely the most “accessible” documentary and will resonate more heavily with American members, particularly those from small towns who empathise with the film’s themes. In saying that, For Sama and Honeyland are both absolutely still in the hunt, so don’t be surprised to see one of these two take home the trophy.