The purpose of any documentary film – regardless of subject matter – is the search for truth. It’s the entire point of nonfiction storytelling, to deal in facts, to educate, to highlight elements of our world that deserve to be seen and appreciated, even if we don’t agree with the overall point being made.
That’s why it’s always so disheartening when we get blatant falsehoods or manipulations disguised by using the name “documentary.” It’s one thing to lie, it’s quite another to assert the lie as fact through a corrupted use of a word in complete defiance of its definition. Usually, the world at large rejects these exercises in intellectual depravity, especially when they come from sources like American traitor Mike “MyPillow Guy” Lindell and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza.
But as we learned in the past year, there are more subtle dishonesties at play, and the Documentary Branch is just as susceptible to them as anyone else. Of the 15 films on this year’s shortlist, two of them are potentially fraudulent picks, symptoms of yet another ill-fated attempt by Academy powers to pander to a youth audience that’s just never going to engage with the gimmick. One was the film about Billie Eilish, which was produced and distributed by her record label as a puff piece, and only has something interesting to say when it’s doing so unintentionally or ironically. As intended, however, it’s nothing more than a pure piece of advertising. The other is one of our nominees, and while it’s a great film in almost every aspect, its nomination and potential victory has to come with an asterisk because of the marketing campaign surrounding it, as Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was booked to DJ the Oscars last year and given in-broadcast time to promote his movie, thereby arguably prejudicing the jury with the Academy’s blessing. I’m not saying the film couldn’t have succeeded on its own merits, but because of the tactics, the basic tenets of critical thought demand that we at least consider the possibility.
It’s sad, really, because it flies in the face of what documentary filmmaking is supposed to be about, honesty and truth. By giving Questlove that practically free airtime to self-promote, it gave him an automatic head start on the rest of the field and a huge advantage in judgment by setting the bar. Essentially, all his film had to do was not be terrible, and it would be the built-in front-runner, and all other entries would be graded against it with the voters already having a pre-conceived notion.
It’s not right, and it’s not fair. And yet, it looks like it’s going to work. For the second straight year, it appears that there’s going to be a consensus across Awards Season in this category, ignoring so many other potentially better films. There’s a reason that a third of all the awards won’t be properly presented at this year’s ceremony, and that is because Disney wants to control the content. They can say it’s for ratings all they want, but ratings only count when they benefit the broadcaster. As such, promoting a film nearly a year in advance of its own Oscar campaign – a film distributed by a Disney subsidiary and streaming on a Disney-owned platform – is a way to engineer a victory for the sake of those very self-serving ratings. If you’re wondering why this category didn’t get cut, the answer probably lies somewhere in all of that. Disney played the long game on this one, and it’ll probably pay off.
Still, what is likely to happen is not the same as what should happen, so despite my griping, it’s time to judge this field on the actual strengths of the productions, not the corporate bullshit behind the scenes. As always, since I completed the entire shortlist, once I’m done breaking down the candidates and ranking the category, I’ll expand to a full ranking of all 15 films, so you can get an idea of the true range of quality in this year’s race.
This year’s nominees for Documentary Feature are…
Ascension – Jessica Kingdon, Kira Simon-Kennedy, and Clark Spencer
It’s amazing what a coincidence can do. Although Jessica Kingdon had already begun her ambitious project of showing the quixotic attempt at social mobility for China’s working class, the film gained unintentional relevance from the fact that Kingdon’s ancestor, Zhang Ze, had written a poignant poem over a century ago perfectly summing up this very issue. As such, the film becomes an exercise in lyricism, depicting the cruel irony of capitalist influence on an ostensibly communist nation like movements of orchestral music rather than an outright commentary on yet another facet of China’s deplorable human rights record.
If Karl Marx were alive today, he’d spit on what China calls communism, as rather than seizing the means of production, the masses are practically enslaved to it, evidenced by several vignettes where Chinese workers are taught to revere and worship their bosses and government when they’re on the clock, and in their free time they’re inundated with media that sells them on the idea that they too can one day join the wealthy classes, even though the system is designed to deny any chance of it. The only difference between American “capitalism” and Chinese “communism” is that in the latter, the government has a much larger, authoritative, and repressive influence on the process, essentially choosing who gets to be wealthy, whereas in the former there’s at least the possibility through random chance and once-in-a-generation brilliance when opportunity does occasionally present itself.
Kingdon’s ability to simply let her camera roll as labor paradoxes unfold is kind of amazing. There’s a nauseating beauty to watching people knit MAGA hats for “America First” nimrods who hate them, or in juxtaposing figurative dolls in the forms of models being taught how to be “influencers” with factory workers making literal sex dolls. But most tragically of all, there’s almost no resistance shown to any of this. The con has worked. As we see dozens of people crammed onto a lazy river at a water park (a great visual metaphor), we realize that such fleeting catharsis only fuels the larger machine. It doesn’t matter if you can temporarily gum up the works through sheer volume, eventually the cogs will start turning again, and no matter what side of the globe you’re on, odds are, you’re getting fucked, and not in the fun way.
Attica – Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry
This is a documentary that couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, as our country is in the midst of its latest culture war with regard to its racial history. In states all over America (but mostly in the south; gee, I wonder why), legislatures are literally passing laws right now that forbid schools to teach any kind of history that essentially makes white people “uncomfortable.” They won’t use the word “white” specifically, but they do make a point to note “majority” parent groups, and these laws are only being brought up in communities with heavily majority white populations, so you do the math. Basically any form of education that might result in kids asking tough questions or forcing their parents to take a self-inventory of racism (or other forms of discrimination) is quickly becoming verboten in several areas.
This is why a film like Attica is essential, because it’s the very type of blunt, factual reality that these powered interests seek to suppress. The film uses simple interviews with people who lived through the Attica Prison Riot and readily available news footage to tell the most straightforward yet human version of events, a version that was conveniently ignored in service of thinly veiled “criminality” narratives that absolved those in power of any responsibility, including the fact that nearly all of the deaths in the incident were caused by law enforcement rather than the inmates pleading for dignity and basic rights. This “party line” account was certainly the one I was taught in high school, and I literally lived within driving distance of the prison.
The film shows how unconscious bias can derail an objective telling of history. It never once asserts that the local residents of Attica are racists (though some of the state troopers called in to enact the eventual massacre are caught on film giddily announcing it), but instead gives context to their position, having had no real interaction with the black community outside of the prison, so they’ve only known minorities in a criminal sense. They simply haven’t been exposed to outside ideas in such a small, rural community. The film even goes out of its way to show that this wasn’t just posturing as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Era, either, as there are scenes showing that high-level institutions like the Black Panther Party basically only paid the inmates lip service and posed for photo ops rather than providing any meaningful assistance.
This is an amazingly even-handed approach, giving almost equal time to the former inmates as the families of the guards in interviews, and it takes care not to judge anyone other than the killers. The whole idea is exposure. Let people know what happened and let them make up their own minds. Some will consider things they never had before, some will only get confirmation of their own previously held opinions, and still others will dismiss it out of hand because it doesn’t align with their preconceived narrative. But the point is to let the facts out, something that makes the people trying to censor information like this very, well, “uncomfortable.”
Flee – Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, and Charlotte De La Gournerie
What more can I say about this masterpiece that I haven’t already? I mean, I’ll have to think of something, because it’s up an unprecedented third time in this ceremony, so I gotta come up with something for International Feature as well.
For our purposes here, I think it makes the most sense to contextualize the film within the sphere of current events, just like with Attica. There’s been an ongoing refugee crisis for the last several years in many parts of the world, and in the last year, it’s only gotten worse, with the end of the Afghan War (where the government and military groomed by Western influences immediately collapsed and ceded the country back to the Taliban) and now Russia’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine for the sake of Vladimir Putin’s micropenis. Amin Nawabi’s story is equal parts inspiring and insightful, as he was one of countless millions caught in the crossfire of situations just like this for years, doing whatever he could to survive, before finding peace in Denmark and a life he could call normal and happy.
There are scenes in that film that, mere months after its release, have come devastatingly full circle. After escaping Afghanistan, Amin’s family lived in Russia in legal limbo for several years, and one of the more gut-wrenching moments from his adolescence that we get to see animated in the film is when he and his brother leave their apartment ever so briefly to see the celebration as one of the first McDonald’s restaurants opens in the country. It is an instance of pure joy for the boys, until it comes crashing down as police target them for their skin color, arrest them, beat them, and kidnap a third child before they’re tossed aside with vague threats to get out of a country that doesn’t want them. The scene was a poignant example of how superficial, cosmetic progress only served as a temporary cover for the darkness and oppression still rampant in the state. It’s worth mentioning that McDonald’s has now closed all of its restaurants in Russia in response to the war. Even that faint glimmer of normalcy is gone as a consequence to the same style of warmongering that Amin fought for decades to escape.
And just like with Attica, Flee tackles an issue that hits very close to home outside of the plight of refugees. As a gay man (weirdly but sweetly illustrated through his crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme), Amin had to hide his sexuality for most of his life, as the truth would likely lead to his death in Afghanistan and at least incarceration in today’s Russia, as Putin has a habit of ignoring homophobic violence and has passed laws banning “gay propaganda,” i.e. any media that acknowledges their humanity. Even that has become more of a front-page issue in this country, as Florida has just passed its hateful “Don’t Say Gay” bill, literally making it illegal for elementary schools to teach that homosexuality exists, and at one point even included a provision forcing schools to out children to their parents if they confided their orientation on school grounds.
As a society, we’ve come a long way, but as we watch Amin’s harrowing tale from the past, we’re reminded in the present that we still have a long way to go. He stands as an avatar for not just displaced people, but oppression the world over, and it’s still so goddam amazing that all of this gets through with largely subtle animation.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, and David Dinerstein
Let me be absolutely clear, I love this freaking movie. The music is some of the best I’ve heard assembled in a film in a long time. I mean, STEVIE WONDER PLAYS FUCKING DRUMS! How can you not be amazed? There are insightful conversations had about priorities between the black community in Harlem and the rest of the country, evidenced by amazing news footage of festival attendees not giving a crap about the Moon Landing because it has no effect on their day-to-day lives. Most of all, I was floored by the way the film was edited, to the point that I honestly think the Academy missed a moment by not considering this for the Film Editing category. The intersplicing of the film with interviews with people who were there over 50 years ago watching the footage for the first time since the event is a transporting experience.
There’s a reason the theatre I saw it in basically abandoned the etiquette of the movies, with people in the audience casually clapping, singing, and dancing along in their chairs. There were even moments where people engaged in call-and-response to some of the performers on stage ON THE SCREEN as if it was a church revival. There was something truly magical about the Harlem Cultural Festival, and I feel like a richer person having seen this.
But that said, I still quibble ever so slightly with the presentation and assertions of subtle bias and racism surrounding the footage. The film was advertised as showing audiences what the world ignored in the summer of 1969, when both this festival took place as well as Woodstock. But it’s an apples and oranges comparison. Woodstock happened over three days. The Harlem Cultural Festival happened over six weekends, with only one conflicting with Woodstock. More crucially, Woodstock featured all sorts of musical genres, from blues to folk to country to rock. The Harlem Festival centered mostly on soul and gospel. In essence, Woodstock was designed to have a wider, more mass appeal, while Harlem was more niche. And there’s nothing wrong with that, until you suggest that there was some form of prejudice or discrimination in how the world saw one as opposed to the other, particularly through media. As I mentioned when I reviewed it, the subtitle is unnecessarily accusatory, and likely factually inaccurate. Just because the footage wasn’t televised doesn’t mean it couldn’t be televised. Networks simply decided not to buy the concert footage and air it. This sort of thing happens all the time, and I’m guessing in much larger proportions back in 1969, when there were only three national networks for it to show. Networks pass on shit, a lot of it really good. Should it have been seen? Of course. From even the small snippets we see in the movie, it was clearly fantastic. But just because networks made a business decision doesn’t mean they did so with malice aforethought.
Trust me, I don’t like these types of decisions. In an ideal world, all media outlets would make qualitative decisions about their content rather than quantitative ones. It would prevent travesties all over the entertainment spectrum, including what ABC and Disney themselves are doing to the Oscars RIGHT FUCKING NOW! But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand their misplaced motivations. I just offered a fairly reasonable explanation for why the festival footage never made air. It was a six-week festival as opposed to three days, making it difficult to prioritize what gets shown (and it can’t be ruled out that these decisions were made weeks before Woodstock was even a consideration), and the festival had a narrower scope of audience and musical genres than Woodstock. I vehemently disagree with the logic, but I get it. To suggest a different motivation absent any proof – which this film does – is intellectually dishonest, and it harms the overall credibility of what is otherwise a tremendous achievement, not to mention the fact that it’s entertaining as hell.
Writing With Fire – Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh
As many sectors of the world backslide away from democracy and towards authoritarianism, apparently learning nothing from the last century, the importance of an independent press has never been more apparent. Writing With Fire gives viewers a crucial profile in courage from arguably the most vulnerable journalists in this dangerous time, the women of the Khabar Lahariya newspaper, an outlet in Uttar Pradesh, India run entirely by Dalit – or “Untouchable” – women, potentially the lowest class of people in the entire country, especially under the extreme nationalist rule of Narendra Modi.
The film offers some great insight into how this motivated group of women operate with minimal resources to make sure their stories and the stories of their communities get told, speaking truth to power in a country where dozens of reporters have been killed over the last few years. Chief reporter Meera and her younger counterpart Suneeta represent a generational legacy of bravery and conflict, balancing their ambitions with the expectations of their stations in life, and the risks they incur by running afoul of them. Yet their ingenuity (the film shows them converting from print to digital media using smartphones and YouTube) and tenacity is inspiring to watch, a rare bright spot in a category that often features downer stories.
But that’s about it. There’s really nothing deeper in this film, and while the story is strong, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. With every other nominee in this year’s field, there’s something well beyond the surface level, but honestly, not here. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, not by a long shot. It’s just noticeably more basic than all the others. One could argue that makes the film more accessible, and therefore more essential. On the other hand, you could just as easily assert that in a crowded field, it ultimately makes this the most forgettable film of the set. And given that wide audiences won’t be able to see it until after its Oscar fate is decided, I think the filmmakers and/or the distributors are tacitly conceding that point.
3) Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
5) Writing With Fire
And now, as always, here is the complete ranking of the Academy’s shortlist of 15. Obviously the top five are the ones I’d have nominated for if given the chance to vote. I’d argue that after we reach #9 on this list, all others did not warrant their spot on the shortlist or a final nomination.
2) The Rescue
5) Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
6) Simple As Water
8) The First Wave
9) The Velvet Underground
10) Writing With Fire
12) Faya Dayi
13) In the Same Breath
14) Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, we’ve got one final performance category, and one more video before we get to the biggest prize of all. Sadly, it’s also by far the weakest field we’ve seen in years. It’s Best Actress!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which documentaries did you see on the shortlist? What should have been nominated instead of these five? How would you react to seeing footage of a concert you went to decades before? Let me know!