Welcome to the third part in our miniseries on the 2021 Documentary Feature shortlist. You can find the recaps for Part 1 and Part 2 in their accompanying links, and as previously mentioned, I have individual reviews for Summer of Soul, The Rescue, and Flee. Today’s installment will bring us up to 12 on this year’s class of 15, and it will likely be the last update for a while. Of the three remaining films, two of them are available on streamers, but I don’t have either of those services on my personal devices (my roommates do, so I’ll have to work around their schedules for access), and the third – Writing with Fire – only got a one-week theatrical run back in late November. It will be available through Laemmle Virtual Cinema (where you can see two of today’s entries) on March 4, three weeks before the Oscars ceremony. This beats my previous best prospect, which was PBS the day after the Oscars.
So this is an improvement, and it means I will be able to complete the shortlist before the Academy hands out its hardware, but I may not be able to finish before the nominations come out in February. I’ll keep my eyes out in case it appears online or on DVD (or perhaps another theatrical run) before then, but don’t bank on seeing the full assessment of the shortlist until we’re fully into the Blitz.
Simple as Water
For the last several years there’s been at least one documentary about the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria to make it deep into the Oscars process, be they shorts or features. In the last four years, there have been four features nominated for the top prize (two for 2019; last year’s Italian entry, Notturno, was shortlisted but ultimately not given a nod). The Documentary Branch, more than any other at the Academy, certainly has its agendas when it comes to their voters, and until Bashar al-Assad is out of power and peace is restored, I’m guessing we’re going to be getting something to look at on the subject every year, as there’s clearly a large enough bloc of voters to advance the projects.
That’s not me being cynical, simply pattern recognition. And for its part, Simple as Water, this year’s Syria film, is the best I’ve seen apart from the heartbreaking For Sama from two years ago. Directed by Megan Mylan, who previously won the Oscar for Documentary Short with her 2008 film, Smile Pinki, the film succeeds for the same reason Sama did, in that it focuses squarely on the human element in its emotional storytelling, rather than just showing us buildings exploding and dead bodies.
The film is a fly-on-the-wall look at five Syrian adults, all displaced in some way, and their struggles to maintain their families. Samra, a refugee in Turkey, is raising five children by herself after her husband was killed. Samra does her best to work to provide for her kids, but most of the parenting responsibility is left to her 12-year-old son, who is utterly devoted to her. Due to the stress of her situation, Samra faces the difficult decision of registering her children with an orphanage so they can at least have a stable living environment while she tries to make money and solidify their status in a new country. Omar lives in Philadelphia with his teenage brother, Abed, who lost a leg due to an injury before they could flee the country. Both are seeking asylum in the United States, but Omar is waylaid by red tape and the presumption of being a terrorist because he briefly fought with the Syrian resistance. Then there’s Diaa, who is still in Syria despite pleas from her family to escape. However, she won’t leave because she has a special needs child who she can’t take with her, and her oldest son has been “disappeared” by the regime, and she won’t give up hope that he’s still alive.
All three of these stories are sad and inspirational in their own way, but the core of the film belongs with its bookended couple. The film starts with Yasmin, a mother of four (formerly five) living with her children in a tent city at a port in Athens. Her husband, Safwan, seen at the end, is currently housed in Germany, in a tenement with several other men, doing his best to work and assimilate into German society in order to get the rest of the family placed with him.
Watching them (and the others) deal with bureaucratic hurdles over the course of five years is almost as visceral and gut-wrenching as actual war footage. But more importantly, it’s the degree of rapport and trust that Mylan builds with each of these families scattered across the world that allows her the degree of intimate access to see these people at their most desperate, hopeful, and raw that makes this rise pretty high up my list.
Directed by Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi gives us a rare look at Ethiopian culture, particularly that of the cultivation of khat, a chewable leaf that induces euphoric hallucinations and is used in traditional ceremonies. The film itself is presented somewhat like a psychedelic trip, with several slow motion shots and local chants weaved into the soundtrack to create an otherworldly experience.
As far as a narrative is concerned, the film carves two divergent paths. On the one side we see the actual industry created around khat in rural Ethiopia, from its growth, harvest, packaging, and sale. On the other, a group of young adult men plan their eventual exodus from their hometowns, hoping to emigrate to Europe for a more fulfilling life, seeing khat as a dead-end addiction that limits their prospects.
These are interesting ideas, because khat is considered a controlled substance in many countries around the world (including here in America), but it is legal in other parts, particularly where it has ritual use in religious contexts. So seeing the world surrounding this plant is sort of a parallel to the drug war in our own society, particularly when it comes to lighter substances like marijuana or more traditional hallucinogens like peyote. There’s also a powerful filmmaking effect at play with shooting the film entirely in black and white, aiding the dreamlike state of the overall story.
Unfortunately, while this is all very noble, it often comes off boring. The translation frequently omits important contextual things like the words to the local songs. The story constantly flips back and forth between its two main arcs, but never gives either enough focus to truly know who’s who and what’s what. The fact that most of the participants aren’t directly named doesn’t help, either. In one scene where three young men agree to meet with a smuggler the next morning to get out of the country, one backs out because he doesn’t trust the suddenness of the decision, but I have no idea who any of these guys are, because the utterance of names is so rare that if you look away for even a second you might miss it (and there’s no on-screen fonting of the various players), and the scene is pitch black anyway, so there’s no adequate lighting to tell them apart. A good deal of the dialogue is overlayed with the scene anyway, so it’s not like you could follow who’s talking at any given moment. This eventually bogs the film down to the point that its two-hour runtime feels interminable in several sections, and I wish I could chew a leaf just to see something else.
Completing this trio of omniscient tales led by female filmmakers (a happy coincidence in my viewing order) is Ascension, by Jessica Kingdon, which won the Documentary Feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. Filmed throughout China, the film is an ironic look at the idea of progress through industrialization. While China is a communist regime, the film goes to great lengths to illustrate how similar it is to the most elitist capitalist plutocracies at times, a reality that flies in the face of the founding principles of communism. The title comes from that of a poem by Kingdon’s great-grandfather, Zhang Ze, written over 100 years ago, about the struggle to work to raise oneself up the social ladder, only to find desolation in place of peace. Even though Kingdon wasn’t even aware of her ancestor’s poetry when she began making the film, this fortunate accident ends up perfectly portraying the very paradox she and her team were going for.
The entire film is a series of vignettes about how the masses across China must prostrate themselves for the benefit of their socioeconomic betters and their corporate overlords. Unskilled workers are herded into busses at a makeshift cattle call for a cell phone company. Young women are trained in how to become essentially dolls for their bosses, which contrasts nicely with a factory where lower class workers literally assemble silicone sex dolls. Employees at a makeup company are trained as a militia, with their off time devoted to seminars where they learn to be social media influencers. A model complains about the heat on a golf course where she’s being photographed, mere feet from a gardener on his knees in that same blistering sun tilling the grass to perfection. An automated machine at a textile factory stitches together Donald Trump campaign paraphernalia despite Trump’s self-initiated trade war with China itself. Recruits for a security service get brutal boot camp treatment where they’re encouraged to beat each other to the point of deep bruising for the privilege of taking a bullet for their company’s boss.
Seeing the cycle of exploitation, automation, and production is almost hypnotic at times, with the whirr of machines feeling almost musical, and that’s before composer Dan Deacon inserts intentionally down-tuned strings and synthesizers into the score to jar you out of your trance. What we’re seeing is basically a modern form of slavery (the opening call for workers advertises a wage that’s about 1/3 of the federal minimum in the U.S.), but there’s a clever cynicism to it where that servile salary is supplemented with just enough of a standard of living (free on-site dormitory with air conditioning and shuttles to and from the factories) that it almost seems palatable under the right circumstances, to the point where these very same companies can afford to turn people away if they don’t meet very stringent qualifications that are more about image than skill (no tattoos, no one over 38, must be shorter than 1.8 meters tall, etc.). Even though the working conditions are degrading at best, there’s still enough competition to allow arbitrary discrimination, which is as fascinating as it is devastating.
And yet, Kingdon finds the perfect balance by simply letting her camera roll, without ever interjecting. Almost no one in the film speaks out about their lot in life, because like many other countries in late-stage capitalism (including us), most of them feel like they’re billionaires in waiting, which allows the perpetual cycle to continue enriching those who are already wealthy at the expense of those aspiring to even basic comforts. The closest you get to a complaint is in a “school” where people are trained to be butlers. They are told upfront that they will be abused and insulted by their employers, but they can maintain their dignity by commenting to their peers when they’re off the clock. On a break, one student notes that China’s human rights record can’t be nearly as bad as the rest of the world says it is, because there’s so much economic disparity that the lower classes are too busy to even worry about human rights. It’s a tragic, salient point, made all the more glaring by a later scene where the graduates serve a French dinner to a wealthy family returning from holiday, only for those oblivious aristocrats to delight at the fact that they have individual “servant bells” with different tones to call the help, which they play with gleefully.
Twelve down, three to go. Hopefully I won’t have to wait seven weeks to deliver the final entries, but even if I do, you can rest assured that the list will be conquered once more.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which seems most interesting to you? How lifelike would a sex doll have to be for you to invest the money? Let me know!