Back Row Thoughts – The 2019 Doc Feature Shortlist

Oscar nominations are just over a day away, and when they come down on Monday morning, five filmmakers are going to get the thrill of a lifetime, as their movie will be up for the Documentary Feature prize. Late last month, the Academy narrowed over 190 submissions down to a lucky 15, which were then screened across the country in the Oscars Spotlight: Documentaries series. I’ve now seen all 15 possible nominees, and I’m ready to render my verdict.

In some of these cases, I’ve already rated the film, but I’ll give a quick recap of all the films, including a grade, before declaring the five that I personally would nominate were I a member of the Academy’s Documentary Branch. Unlike last year, this is from top to bottom a really decent set of contenders. There are three, maybe four, that I don’t think are worthy of the Oscar, and probably shouldn’t have even made it this far. But really, all of these films have some quality and a reason for being, so no matter who makes the final cut, I won’t be nearly as angry as I’ve been the last two years, where the clear favorite didn’t even get nominated (because the Documentary Branch hates popular films), and some of the worst candidates ended up vying for the prize over much more deserving entries. I’ll save my final rankings for when I break down the category after the nominations come out (that’s called a teaser, for those not in “The Biz”), but suffice to say, there really isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

Here are the films:

Advocate

Lea Tsemel has worked for over five decades as an iconoclastic lawyer in Israel, first beginning in human rights, and then converting to being the go-to defender for Palestinians accused of crimes. Her Sisyphean task requires her to fight attacks from all sides, from the press that dub her clients terrorists before they even see a courtroom, to the public that vilifies her and calls her a traitor, to the actual legal system that continues to oppress Palestinians simply for existing.

Intercut with a history of her life, career, and marriage, the film focuses mainly on two cases. The first is a 13-year-old boy named Ahmad, who took to the street with knives with his 15-year-old cousin. The cousin stabbed a Jewish teenager, and was killed by police at the scene. Ahmad never used his knife, and insisted his intent was only to scare people because of his frustration with the system. Still, he’s charged with two counts of attempted murder. Because Israeli law says a child (under 14) cannot be imprisoned, the judges try to persuade Tsemel and Ahmad to take a plea deal where he spends six years in juvenile detention, but he must admit that his intent was to kill, and he insists that it was not. The trial gets delayed until his 14th birthday so that he can be put in prison for close to 30 years instead.

The other case involves a woman named Israa Jaabis, who was apprehended at a checkpoint when her car caught fire. She had been suicidal before, but evidence suggests the fire was an accident. However, the presence of butane containers in her car and the fact that a policeman was mildly injured (to say nothing of Israa’s much more serious wounds) spurns the court to charge this as an attempted suicide bombing and turn Israa into a radical terrorist.

There’s something noble about fighting for lost causes (Tsemel notes that she almost never wins her cases, yet people always seek her out), and as Tsemel herself points out, “Israelis have no right to tell Palestinians how to struggle.” It’s also even-handed and creative to split the screen and use animatics-style animation to hide the defendants’ identities from the camera, something the Israeli press most definitely does NOT do. Apart from that, though, the film does kind of go on too long, and it gets a bit distracting whenever the main narrative is interrupted for another flashback. This film won several awards, including the top prize at the Docaviv Film Festival, which drew protests and backlash from several right-wing groups. And while I’m not a subscriber to the belief that “Jews run Hollywood” and anything anti-Israel is dead on arrival, I am surprised that the prevailing majority of opinion has been in this film’s favor. It’s a testament to Tsemel’s drive and resolve more than anything else.

Grade: B

American Factory

Personally endorsed and distributed by former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, American Factory takes a hard look at the disappearance of the working class by moneyed interests. In Dayton, Ohio, years after a General Motors plant shut down, a Chinese company called Fuyao, which makes automotive glass, moved in and restarted the shuttered factory, hiring hundreds of local workers as well as incorporating dozens of Chinese supervisors and executives.

Using a “fly on the wall” perspective, we observe over the course of two years how exciting it is to have industry back in a failing town. Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short-lived, as the Chinese management works to suppress any attempts at union organization, fires workers who advocate for their rights, and try to shirk American business and safety regulations. The first sign of trouble comes at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, where U.S. Senator from Ohio Sherrod Brown gives a welcoming speech which mentions the value of labor and the importance of workers rights and union access. As the Chinese businessmen leave the photo op, they call him a motherfucker who had no right to speak out in such a way. When working conditions get to the point that the UAW feels compelled to step in and offer the workers a chance to join, the American executives are fired and an all-out PR campaign is launched within the company, including mandatory meetings with firms that exist solely to discourage union membership. The results are predictable.

The film is at its best when it focuses squarely on the workers themselves. Some take to their new careers with enthusiasm, even if they’re making 1/3 of what they made at GM. Others are initially thrilled, then jaded, then back out on the streets. The more blue collar Chinese workers form rapports with their American colleagues, but it is telling how easily they forget their friends when they’re getting promoted and the Americans are once again laid off. The combination of these scenes with Fuyao putting on a huge dog and pony show for American managers visiting HQ in China is off-putting to say the least.

Sadly, this is where we are as a country right now. We’re so desperate for jobs for the working class that we’ll accept whatever chicanery foreign outfits throw at us just for the headline of adding 2,000 jobs that don’t even pay well. And once again, when workers try to stand up for their rights (which was supposed to be the point of communism in the first place, a fact modern China tends to forget), the authoritarian hand comes down hard, and the intimidation tactics get turned up to 11.

Grade: B

The Apollo

An in-depth look at the history of Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre (with occasional cuts to the present day as the theatre prepares for a reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”), this fairly straightforward documentary focuses on the great moments of the theatre, its revivals, and the influence that each generation of performers has had on the ones that came after. Of particular interest are the clips of great music and comedy shows, as well as the audition process for the Apollo’s world-renowned Amateur Night.

From an artistic standpoint, there’s really not a lot going on with this film, but that doesn’t really matter when you watch the clips and interviews. Everyone from Dick Gregory to Doug E. Fresh used that stage for all it was worth, and the absolute magic in the entertainment is a sight to behold. Oddly enough, one of the best bits for me was seeing a young Lauryn Hill get booed when she sang (slightly off key) at Amateur Night, then came back a decade later with the Fugees and brought the house down. Even when your shot doesn’t go the way you planned, it inspires you to keep working and make the best of yourself.

Grade: B

Apollo 11

I won’t go into too much detail here, as I’ve already rated this film earlier in 2019, and earlier this week I named it as one of my Top 100 of the Decade. Suffice to say, I absolutely adore this footage-based retelling of man’s foray to the moon 50 years since the momentous occasion. Seeing it in IMAX doubled the pleasure, as the immersive experience and large format surround screen made it feel like I was in the actual capsule at points.

Grade: A

Aquarela

This is probably the most unique film of the set, as the movie begins in the Arctic and systematically makes its way down to Angel Falls in Venezuela, essentially the Equator, showing the tumultuous journey water takes from the top of the world to the middle, and giving us real-world looks at the effects of global warming.

Starting in Greenland and Russia, frozen lakes are already beginning to thaw way too early, so rescue teams are dispatched to retrieve people and cars that drive on the ice and fall through. There’s almost no dialogue, apart from a few shouts of workers and survivors, and there’s no real spoken conversation of any kind. We then progress to a lengthy section where glacier chunks break off and fall into the ocean, each snap sounding like a crash of thunder. This makes for rising sea levels and choppy ocean, where the closest thing we have to a main character – the captain of a small survey vessel – has to navigate through insane storms and waves. We then see the effects in American cities like Miami that are constantly beset by floods before everything calms down.

The story is almost entirely told through visuals, drone shots, and the cacophony of sounds as waves rush and icebergs crack. The soundtrack wavers back and forth between serene orchestral music, ambient silence, and blistering heavy metal. This is truly a film you experience rather than simply watch. In a weird way, this shows you more shapes of water than The Shape of Water.

Grade: B

The Biggest Little Farm

Another film I’ve already reviewed, so I’ll just sum up briefly. Two former Hollywood workers decide to leave Santa Monica and buy a farm upstate, and over the course of eight years, we see the farm go from dead land to thriving, self-perpetuating environment, all framed as a promise to a rescue dog who was a very good boy. It’s fun to watch them struggle and succeed, and the Avett Brothers add a good song to the soundtrack. Even though the film is, in the most bare bones terms, a 90-minute commercial for the farm, it’s still an endearing watch.

Grade: B

The Cave

One of a recent litany of documentaries about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, this is a rather interesting look at one particular group of doctors running an underground hospital, literally. On the outskirts of Damascus, Dr. Amani runs “The Cave,” a hospital built underground and connected to the outside world by a series of fortified tunnels. She’s a pediatrician, and the bulk of her work involves treating and lovingly comforting sick and injured children. Her staff makes due as best they can, including playing classical music on their phones during surgeries, because they have no anesthetic for the patients.

Much of the film is a repeating cycle of violence and goodwill, as Syrian and Russian bombs are dropped from warplanes overhead. The constant sounds of explosives is a figurative and literal bombardment and an assault on the senses, albeit a necessary one to get the point across. The staff is caring and lighthearted with one another, trading stories and jokes, but every moment of levity is quickly undone by another attack.

Dr. Amani faces a personal crisis of conscience the whole way through. She’s sometimes berated by men who think she should not be allowed to work at all – clearly men who would rather die clinging to outdated beliefs than get the needed help to survive. She cares for children but openly wonders why anyone would even bother having kids in this environment, a very pragmatic thought. Most importantly, she outright defies those who would invoke God’s name in her hospital, because given the world they live in, God has either abandoned them, or doesn’t exist.

Feminine perspectives in Syria have been sorely missing from the discourse and documentaries, with one major exception, which we’ll get to shortly, so it’s refreshing to get Dr. Amani’s viewpoint here. Unfortunately, the film gets a little bogged down by trying to do a bit too much. Director Feras Fayyad tries to get a bit too fancy by incorporating visual effects and drone shots in the opening sequence, looking to manufacture visual poetry where none is needed. Also, even though the hospital is underground, there’s a sequence where Dr. Amani makes house calls to care for malnourished children that largely serves as an excuse to get her soapboxing on how religion allows men to dominate, a companion to an early scene where an angry husband tells her to go home and not work because that’s the way things should be. If you’re reaching that far to drive a theme home that you abandon the central setting and core thesis of your film, you’re better off not having these scenes.

Also, while it wasn’t necessary, I would have liked to see more about how this underground tunnel system and hospital was actually constructed, and how it can withstand the strikes from above.

Grade: B

The Edge of Democracy

Over the last two years, Brazil has arrested its last two presidents for corruption and elected their equivalent of Donald Trump. The situation hasn’t gotten much press attention here in the U.S., except for when President Bolsanaro goes off the rails, like last summer when he denied the Amazon was on fire, or just this past week when he and his right-wing cohorts tried to ban a Netflix series that depicted Jesus as gay. Apart from that, though, we really don’t know much about how Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff fell from power, and what their crimes were. I had just assumed everything was above board.

Turns out, not so much. In order to get elected, Lula made a Faustian bargain with the majority conservative party in Brazil to form a government, even though he was a staunch liberal and champion of the working class. After two terms as President, he left office with an approval rating over 80%, something Trump can only dream of when he’s not dreaming of KFC and re-enslaving black people. Dilma had a harder road, and actually had to name a conservative as her Vice President in order to secure her victory and the continued agenda of the Workers Party.

However, because she was a liberal, and a woman, the right-wingers decided to take her down, basically. Due to her involvement with Petrobras, the national oil company and a delayed payment to some government workers, a scandal was manufactured that painted her as a corrupt thief, and the opposition majority impeached her overwhelmingly. She was then removed from office by the Brazilian Senate, and her VP, a member of that opposition party, became President. While she was not squeaky clean, the film argues that her wrongdoing didn’t amount to an impeachable offense, and it especially didn’t warrant Lula’s arrest and imprisonment on, ahem, trumped up charges, that basically amounted to him being guilty of corruption because other corrupt people bought an apartment in his name. There was no deed with his name on it, but the prosecution argued that his failure to provide the deed that would prove his guilt was enough to prove his guilt.

Whether you agree with the charges against Lula and Dilma or not, the big glaring problem is with the justice system and the partisan politics. The conservative party impeached Dilma but refused to even hold an investigation when her VP and successor, Michel Temer, was accused of similar misconduct. Also, in Brazilian federal court, apparently the prosecutors are also the judges, which skews justice immensely. It also didn’t help that the prosecutor and judge in this case was the conservative candidate that Dilma beat in the elections.

We have a legitimate impeachment process going on in America right that Trump and his party is trying to railroad and dismiss with prejudice, which makes this movie all the more poignant. In Brazil, the exact opposite happened, as argued by the film. It’s a fascinating parallel, and a sad possibility for where we may be heading as a nation. Brazil has only been a democracy for a few decades. We’ve had ours for almost 250 years. The experiment could soon face failure in both cases.

Grade: B

For Sama

I’ve reviewed this one already, on two different sites, so there’s not much more that needs to be said, except that if you haven’t seen this movie, do it, do it now, and keep tissues handy.

Waad al-Khateab’s video diary and love letter to her infant daughter is poignant, heartbreaking, and a desperately needed human and feminist story in the Syrian crisis. While thematically similar to The Cave, it goes that extra mile of being 100% genuine and personal, with no frills or extraneous storylines and effects to get the point across.

Grade: A

The Great Hack

As has been reported on the news for the last two years, a British company called Cambridge Analytica had an immense impact on the 2016 Presidential Election domestically and the Brexit vote in the U.K. Through special permissions from Facebook, the company was able to collect over 5,000 data points about every voter in America and Britain through online quizzes and surveys, as well as pirating the personal data of everyone in the friends list of anyone who took those surveys. That data was then weaponized and used to target misinformation and outright lies to those deemed most persuadable in order to swing the elections, with much of that content coming from the Russians.

A lot of this we already knew, but this documentary is an intriguing and at times baffling look at just how easily it all went down, and how in the aftermath people are looking to recover what was stolen and make those responsible pay the proper penalty. Focusing on Professor David Carroll, former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, and Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for The Guardian, the film is largely a quest for Carroll to pursue legal means to retrieve the very data that Cambridge and SCL Group took from him. The process of doing so helps to expose all the wrongdoing by the company, which eventually leads to its shuttering and the criminal investigation of its CEO Alexander Nix, who famously bragged on hidden camera about winning the Presidency for Trump.

Kaiser, who once interned with the Obama campaign, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you sell out your principles for money. Interviewed partly in an undisclosed luxury resort in Thailand, she continues to live high on the hog despite aiding in creating the monster that threatens to destroy our democracy. She’s trying her best to make things right, but she also enjoys a rather comfortable lifestyle (she wears couture outfits and struts around in an ugly cowboy hat that makes her look like she’s permanently on the lookout for a rave at a beachside bar). To her, the “CA” of Cambridge Analytica may as well be her own personal scarlet letters, and you want to feel sorry for her at times, but then again, she made her own mess, and while she wasn’t getting job offers from the Clinton campaign, she was never forced to facilitate Trump’s victory.

The sad part about this whole affair is that despite numerous hearings and investigations at home and abroad, the problem has not been solved. Cambridge Analytica may be gone, but there are numerous other outfits waiting in the wings to turn your own data against you and manipulate the next election. Even though the entire Leave campaign in Brexit was exposed as a fraud, its champion is now Prime Minister, and the agreement to finally depart from the European Union has been rubber stamped. Back home, Mark Zuckerberg took some heat for his company’s negligence, but in the end, they not only aren’t doing anything substantive to prevent future hacks, they’ve outright made it their policy to allow political advertisers to lie to their users. This is an essential documentary because if we don’t wake the fuck up and fast, democracy can and will fail.

Grade: B+

Honeyland

This film is on two Oscar shortlists, as it’s also the International Film submission for North Macedonia. Told over the course of three years (though the editing process makes it look more like one), the film tells the story of a middle-aged woman named Hatidze, a wild beekeeper in a remote village near the Macedonian capital of Skopje. She lives in a hovel with her 85-year-old mother, who is bedridden, blind in one eye, and very hard of hearing. Hatidze keeps bees in rocky hives in walls and the faces of mountains, selling their honey in local markets for 10 Euro a jar whenever she harvests. Her one cardinal rule, though, is to only take half of the honeycombs in each hive, as keeping the bees working from their already established structures allows them to flourish and it drives away rival bees that may attack the hives.

One day, a nomadic family of cowhands moves in near her land. Initially, their relationship is cordial, friendly, and at times familial. The family’s patriarch decided to move to the area to start an apiary of his own in hopes of making extra money for his children’s education. However, it’s clear that he’s in way over his head, and is so full of himself and confident in his own non-existent skill, that he outright refuses the help and advice Hatidze offers. When the man’s own son, who takes a genuine interest in the project, tries to learn from Hatidze, he is forbidden to go near her. Eventually, his brash actions – including taking all the combs from each hive despite Hatidze’s warnings – results in the bees becoming too aggressive, stinging his family, killing his calves, and attacking Hatidze’s bees to the point that she’s losing her own livelihood.

The film is a brilliant display of hubris, and the outdated idea that confidence equals ability. The neighbor is the ultimate Turkish mansplainer, incessantly sure in his rightness despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because he’s a man and Hatidze is a woman. Watching his eventual downfall evokes a certain degree of schadenfreude, even while you feel plenty of sympathy for his family, and your heart breaks for Hatidze. However, she is a symbol of endurance, and the film serves as proof that no matter what hardships we face, the world keeps turning and everything works its way back to normal. Think of this as the Macedonian honeybee version of “Life… uh… finds a way.”

Grade: B

Knock Down the House

A friend of mine works for an organization called “Brand New Congress,” which is at the center of this documentary about grassroots campaigns to make primary challenges to entrenched Democratic Congressmen and Senators (she gets a mention in the “Special Thanks” section of the credits). Focusing on four races, the film culminates with the shock election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives in 2018. BNC is working again to try to upset the status quo during this upcoming election cycle as well, promoting and funding upstart campaigns from progressive and proudly liberal candidates to shake up the Democratic establishment and get new blood, more representative blood, into our nation’s seats of power.

I’ve already reviewed this one in a previous “DownStream” column, so there’s not much more to say here. All I’ll say is that the film is thrilling from beginning to end, even though I already knew the results of every race, thanks to my friend’s constant social media presence and promotion. I also kind of have a crush on AOC.

Grade: B+

Maiden

The inspirational story of Tracy Edwards and the crew of the titular yacht, which struck a blow for women in sport as the first all-female team to enter the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. Through archival footage and interviews, we see how Tracy developed from a headstrong, rebellious teenager into someone committed to sailing and giving women a chance to race alongside the boys. She builds her crew, trains them, grinds for sponsorship, and even endures some drama right before the race is about to start. Once everything gets underway, the adventure is enrapturing.

Like other entries on this list, the format is pretty straightforward, but the content is so strong that you don’t care how conventional it is. Watching this team come together and not only compete but excel is exactly the type of hopeful message young girls need. And while sailing isn’t the most accessible of sports, especially if you’re not white and/or rich, the underlying message of sisterhood and tenacity is quite valuable, and worth seeing again and again.

Grade: B+

Midnight Family

Mexico City is the most populous metropolitan area in North America, with over nine million people. However, there are only 45 government ambulances to service the entire city. That’s where the Ochoa family comes in. Owners of a private, run-down ambulance, they monitor police radio for emergencies in their area, then sprint to the scene in hopes of scoring some cash by helping out the unattended citizenry, with little success.

The problem with this film is that there’s basically no one to root for, as all sides have major issues. The government only has 45 ambulances, but instead of buying or building new ones, it simply passes regulations designed specifically to drive private ambulances out of business. The police will assist at an emergency scene, then immediately pull the Ochoas over to demand bribes to “look the other way” on the regulatory issues that they can’t meet. The Ochoas themselves are negligent, and with the exception of young adult Juan, lazy. They even bring the school age kid brother Josue along with them on these all-night excursions, rather than making sure he gets proper rest and an education. And it’s not like he contributes to the job. He just sits in the back, plays games on his phone, and eats snacks the family can’t afford.

But the worst bit of all, between Juan and father Fernando, is the way they ask for money. While on principle they won’t turn anyone away who has no insurance or money, they constantly pressure the people they’re out there to help to give them cash for their service, and Juan outright calls them ungrateful if they can’t pay. They bring all the patients to a back alley hospital that pays them a commission (which can be recouped through insurance if the patient has it), whether it’s the closest ER or not. They lie to their patients and tell them that the state hospitals – or the hospitals that accept their insurance – are full up just so they can take them to this unsanitary dump. And in one of the most heartless moments of the film, when a young girl dies en route, they have the unmitigated gall to shake down the victim’s distraught mother because she hastily signed an agreement just to get her dying child into a goddamn ambulance.

Seriously, if you ever needed a reason why we need to eliminate private medicine, this is it.

Grade: B-

One Child Nation

Directed by Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) and Jialing Zhang, the film takes a look at China’s infamous one-child policy, which ran from 1979 to 2015 as an attempt to control the population. After having her own child in America, Wang decided to return home to her rural village to explore the effects of this policy, particularly on women. She was the rare child born under this policy to have a sibling, a brother, who was allowed to be born after much negotiation, and because he was a boy, he is the favored child, the one universally acknowledged by the community and Wang’s own family.

There are some insightful bits, like interviews with midwives who helped deliver and raise entire villages for generations, or nurses and doctors who were tasked with sterilizing women after their first child and forcibly aborting future pregnancies. Wang even notes the irony of being born in a country that forced abortion as a policy and then moving to a country where one political party is trying to make it completely illegal, which she also doesn’t support because in both cases, it’s a government of mostly men trying to control a woman’s body. A lot of this stuff is pretty fascinating, and in the case of all the footage of government propaganda songs, disturbing and Orwellian.

Where the film loses me is on a lot of the side tangents. Wang explores the adoption programs that basically sold babies to the West for years, trying quixotically to reunite families with lost children. She makes note of all the people who are willing to talk to her, but tell her not to make trouble, or say that they hated the policy, but since it was policy, who were they to argue. These are interesting points, but after the second or third time, we get it. We don’t need 20 more examples. Also, there’s an artist who keeps an aborted fetus suspended in a jar of formaldehyde, which is just gross and serves no purpose.

Grade: B-

* * *

Phew, that was a lot to get through, wasn’t it? But like I said, this is, on the whole, a pretty solid crop. Out of the 15, eight get a B grade from me, and the lowest grade overall is a B- for two entries. Compare that to last year, where we had at least one C-, and somehow it still got nominated. You can kind of tell where I stand despite the large middle here, but just for the record, here are the five films I would nominate if I had a say:

Apollo 11
For Sama
The Great Hack

Knock Down the House
Maiden

As I said, I’ll offer my full rankings when the Oscar Blitz officially gets underway next week. But as I said, there’s no truly bad film in the bunch. Still, I hope the Academy makes the right choices.

Join the conversation in the comments below! How many of these films have you seen? Which are your favorites? Are there other documentaries you think should have made the cut? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – The 2019 Doc Feature Shortlist

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