The shortlists for this year’s Academy Awards were released just over a week ago, which means I’m already in prime mode, trying to clear off as many potential nominees as possible before the official finalists are declared in just about four weeks’ time. As ever, that includes the goal of clearing the shortlist for Documentary Feature. Given the sheer number of submissions – 238 per the Academy this year – it fascinates me how the Documentary Branch is able to whittle that down to a mere 15, and then to five. It’s a staggering feat, especially when they appear to have an agenda, like promoting certain political viewpoints or eschewing the rare entries that are beloved by critics and audiences. The reason I try to see the entire shortlist is to attempt to divine a larger context for whatever the Branch hopes to convey to the Academy membership writ large. Quite literally, I’m asking, “What are they thinking?”
For example, the last three years the category has featured at least one final nominee that focuses on the humanitarian crisis in Syria due to the civil war and Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal grip on power. None of those films has won, and from my personal perspective, only one, last year’s For Sama, was really worthy of consideration. I tend to rank those films fairly low because they’re almost completely about human suffering without a clear narrative, and I can only watch that tragedy for so long. However, it’s clear from that sample that a significant portion of the Branch, enough to put some films over the top in the nomination process, believes wholeheartedly in the cause, elevating them over what I and many other critics and fans feel are more popular, more creative, and simply better made films. With that in mind, when I look at the shortlist, I feel like I can already pencil in a nomination for Notturno, which did not make the cut in the International Feature category (it was Italy’s submission), because it deals with that subject matter, and it also helps that the director’s previous film, Fire at Sea, was also nominated.
So before the nominations come out, eliminating all but 1/48 of the field of submissions, I feel it’s a duty to at least clear the shortlist if possible to give you a chance to learn about – and hopefully watch – 10 films you likely wouldn’t otherwise see, and give them at least some recognition within what could be the larger context of the Branch’s mindset. So far, I’ve already posted reviews for Dick Johnson is Dead, the three films that were also International Feature submissions (Notturno, Collective, and The Mole Agent), and Boys State via a summertime edition of DownStream. That leaves 10 potential nominees, eight of which I have immediate access to, and two others I’m trying to track down. With that in mind, I’ll provide mini-reviews for five of the films right now, and hopefully the other five in the coming weeks. If I can’t do it before the nominations come out, I’ll still post another DownStream with the three others currently available, and do my best to get the other two out during the Blitz, especially if one of them gets nominated.
76 Days – Available through Virtual Cinemas and VOD services
Distributed by MTV, 76 Days is a harrowing, yet slightly uplifting tale of life for hospital workers in Wuhan, China after the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the city of 11 million (more populous than any American city) to completely shut down in an attempt to contain. There are no holds barred in this picture, which begins very much like a horror film, with a doctor having to be restrained by her colleagues because her father has just died in the ICU and she can’t risk infection by going in to say goodbye. The level of despair and sadness just in these opening seconds will rip your heart straight out of your chest. And for while it only gets worse, as the hospital is nearly overrun by patients trying to find a bed, and those who do get in are in a very bad way, some beyond saving. One particular patient, who also suffers from dementia, constantly tries to leave, and because he used to be a mid-level official in the local Communist Party, believes that he should be allowed to die (he’s over 70) so that resources aren’t wasted on him, never even considering that if he goes home – where four generations live under one roof – he’d be condemning up to 20 more people.
Yet despite this barely controlled chaos, there is hope in the form of the frontline workers, doctors and nurses covered head to toe in layers of PPE, identifiable only by their names written in marker on their backs. Their tenacity and endurance is something truly heroic, finding the little victories anywhere they can, from the steady progress of a patient’s condition to simply making a dent in the grim pile of belongings in a box marked “Phones and IDs of the Dead.” The fact that they’re able to soldier on despite everything working against them is nothing short of amazing, and it’s the one constant that mitigates the horror and tragedy unfolding all around them.
Crip Camp – Available on Netflix
Produced and Directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham under the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions (they won in this category last year for their debut film, American Factory), Crip Camp is an interesting tale of youth bonding and political activism. The first half of the film takes place in 1971 at Camp Jened, a summer camp for the disabled that used to operate in the Catskills region in upstate New York. LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida, attended as a teenager. Using archival and handheld footage, we get an extraordinary look at a summer of fun and freedom for kids that never got the chance to socialize with others like them. It’s touching and inspiring to see these kids get to be kids and experience adolescence in a completely judgment free environment.
After that wonderful summer, the film shifts to a more rapid-fire timeline through the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, as several of the campers and counselors remained in touch and organized in California to fight for the rights of the handicapped, culminating in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whereas much of the first half of the film was focused on LeBrecht, the latter half is all about Judy Heumann, who was a counselor at Jened and later the face of the campaign for accessibility and civil rights. She’s a powerful advocate and someone to be truly admired.
The pacing and tonal focus of the film suffers a bit when things get to this point, mostly because I personally think there are two separate films on display here, both worthy of feature length status. I wanted to know so much more about the camp, LeBrecht, and all the others at that time, and I wanted to see a much more in-depth look at how they all came together in advocacy (mostly we just get arrows and name fonts whenever some of them are at a protest). It feels like they cut two movies down to short film length, then packaged them together. It doesn’t tarnish the message of the film or its subjects, just an editing choice that I feel didn’t quite work. Still an excellent, unique story.
All In: The Fight for Democracy – Available on Amazon Prime
This is very much an “Issue of the Moment” film, a documentary with a specific political agenda produced and released on a schedule to coincide with the 2020 election, similar to Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004. That doesn’t make it bad. In fact, this is a crucial issue that needed a lengthy deep dive investigation. The problem is that the election is over now, and while the key subject is still relevant, the film almost feels incomplete because by design, it can’t incorporate the results of the campaign.
At its core, the film is about voting rights, and how far so many people in this country have had go just to participate in our representative democracy. From the fact that at the nation’s founding only land-owning white men could vote to the systematic attempts by political operatives – mostly right-wing – to restrict voting rights and opportunities in the modern age, the film makes a strong case for the importance of the franchise, and why the United States is arguably the hardest country in the developed world in which to make use of it.
Interspersed throughout the film is a miniature biography of Stacey Abrams, who famously ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018 and lost a very close and hotly contested race with Brian Kemp, who was at the time the Secretary of State and therefore in charge of running the election. Rather than recuse himself, he took an active role in supporting voting rights restrictions and purging voter rolls, committing what some believe to be legalized voter fraud in broad daylight. As such, the message of the film becomes about doing whatever is necessary to circumvent these obstacles and become aggressive in “Get Out the Vote” efforts. The film even ends with selfie videos of celebrities telling you how to make sure you can cast your vote in November, along with a very good Janelle Monáe song called “Turntables,” which is shortlisted for Original Song.
All of this is well and good, but unfortunately, it needs a post-election postscript, showing the good and bad results of these very efforts. On the good side, Abrams is now considered something of a superhero for her GOTV campaign, to the point that Georgia turned blue and voted for Joe Biden (Donald Trump’s outrage at the result now leaves him in legal jeopardy) and flipped the Senate in runoff elections that saw Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win two Republican-held seats. On the bad side, the decisive victory for Democrats has instantly led to some of the very consequences Abrams and the filmmakers foresaw, as GOP state legislatures in 36 states are currently trying to pass over 130 new laws to restrict voting rights, because if you can’t convince the people of your message, don’t change the message, just stop the people from being able to choose your opponents. These are real-time, real-life, relevant consequences to the very crusade they’re fighting, but because the intent was to release before November, they unfortunately can’t include this crucial information, and because of that, the movie feels somewhat unfinished.
MLK/FBI – Available through Virtual Cinemas and VOD services
Through his Play/Action Pictures production company, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is listed as an executive producer on this project. That has nothing to do with anything, but I’ll never miss a chance to say “GO BIRDS!” Anyway, directed by Sam Pollard (previously nominated for Eyes on the Prize), MLK/FBI is a fascinating and damning look at the campaign of intimidation and espionage that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover conducted against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to anecdotes, expert analysis from historians, and newly declassified case files, Pollard shows us the obsessive depths to which Hoover would go to discredit a man who dared to demand equal rights and dignity.
Of particular focus is King’s association with Stanley Levison, who had loose connections to the American Communist Party, and King’s marital infidelity, uncovered through wiretaps and bugs. Essentially, Hoover wanted to destroy King by portraying him as a subversive, anti-American commie and a hypocrite for daring to preach from a pulpit while being unfaithful in his marriage. The audio tapes that the FBI claimed proved his “sexual deviancy” are under seal until 2027, but they don’t matter, honestly, though the sadist in me can’t wait to see the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannities of the world try to lambaste his legacy when they come out after spending the last five years and counting going to bat for a President who filtered campaign funds into hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star.
Aside from the vast array of archival footage which is artfully contextualized, one of the best decisions made by the filmmakers was to not have any of their interview subjects appear on screen for 95% of the film. A name font accompanies their voices, but you don’t see them because it’s much more important to see what King and Hoover are doing while simply listening to them. Only after King’s assassination are the subjects shown, which is just a beautiful touch in a deeply insightful film.
Welcome to Chechnya – Available on HBO/HBO Max
It is baffling to me that in 2021 we still have several countries where homosexuality is criminalized, and even in places where it’s not explicitly banned, it’s still considered such a taboo that people can beat and kill LGBTQ people with impunity. Such is the case in Welcome to Chechnya, an urgent call to action that follows a group of allies who provide asylum and ultimately escape for Russian gays, particularly in Chechnya, where strongman ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has either looked the other way or outright endorsed the torture and killing of these people by his police forces. This is the same guy who was willing to go to war because his cat ran away, so it’s not exactly the most stable of regimes.
Much of the film is focused on two youths looking to get out of the country out of fear for their lives. One, dubbed “Grisha,” is a Moscow native who was working in Chechnya when he was captured and tortured for weeks on end to give up the identities of other gay people. He was beaten, scalded, electrocuted, and constantly assured that he would be murdered, as well as his family. Once in the safety of what can only be described as the Russian LGBTQ equivalent of the Underground Railroad, he, his family, and his boyfriend (codename “Bogdan”) are able to be spirited out of the country, but he eventually returns to file criminal complaints against the Chechen government. The other, called “Anya,” is the daughter of a high-ranking Chechen official. Her uncle found out she was a lesbian, so he threatened her by demanding she have sex with him, or he’d tell her father, and she would be killed. When your options are death or incest, you get out any way you can. It’s a heart-wrenching look at the civil rights we all take for granted, and as someone who has many friends in this community, it kills me to see what they still have to go through just to live without looking over their shoulders.
The film is also shortlisted for Visual Effects, which I found puzzling for the longest time while watching this. A disclaimer at the beginning mentions that those fleeing for their lives are “digitally disguised.” I thought that meant blurring faces, distorting voices, the use of fake names, and in close-ups of phones and computers, using codewords and graphics to conceal people’s identities until they were safely out of Russia. It’s not until the last 20 minutes that we finally see the effects work in action, and my God is it stunning. I don’t want to spoil anything, and looking back through the film I was able to find the effects once I knew what to look for, but what David France and his team accomplishes here is breathtaking, and most definitely worthy of a nomination. You don’t often see dedicated visual effects in a documentary, and this is a game-changer.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? Which one was your favorite? What do you think is worthy of a nomination? Let me know!