Oscar Blitz 2023 – Documentary Feature

As you may know, I have a particular set of issues when it comes to the Oscars every year. Sometimes it’s who gets nominated. Sometimes it’s the naked corporate fealty to Disney. Sometimes it’s the exercise in utter cringe that the ceremony itself has become. Sometimes it’s all of the above.

But I keep following this because film is the one modern artform that is always, continually aspirational. Even when dealing with some of the most depressing subject matters, cinema exists to shine a light on society, to hold a mirror up to it, and challenge it to be better. As such, I watch the movies, I rate them here, and I bitch about the shortcomings of the medium’s highest honor because I know it can improve. If I truly believed that the Oscars have peaked, or just movies in general, I’d stop paying attention and take up a new hobby.

It’s with this in mind that we come back around to my core objection with this year’s overall set, the lack of access. The controversy surrounding Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination lampshades this, and what should be the controversy of Diane Warren’s continued streak of nominations does as well. But the outrage from most sources misses the key point. It’s not just that there’s some potentially shady campaigning going on to get these people and films nominated, it’s the fact that it results in prestige for films that we as a general public don’t get to see. We the audience are left out of the calculus. When a studio spends $30,000 to put a movie in a theatre for one week to meet the most basic eligibility requirements, and then spends 100 times that to promote whatever For Your Consideration marketing ploys they decide to unleash upon the voters, that illustrates the real problem. It’s not about the quality of the film, it’s about the perception of quality that they can then use for advertising by touting some degree of exclusivity, thus artificially inflating their profit margins, rather than just letting a film succeed or fail based on its own merits and let people appreciate the art in whatever fashion they choose.

This brings me to tonight’s category, Documentary Feature. In a given year, there are somewhere in the area of 150-200 films submitted to the Academy for this prize. The notoriously mercurial Documentary Branch then pares that number down to a shortlist of 15, and then finally to the five nominees. The branch has earned its fair share of criticism over the years because they seemingly intentionally eliminate films that appeal to a mass audience. For the last two years, however, the group has overcorrected, basically abandoning the contest by unanimously picking crowd-pleasing streaming films that were for all intents and purposes declared the winner before they were even released.

But for those of us who want as wide a variety of non-fiction storytelling as possible, we’re still left in the same lurch. Whether it’s by ruling out the movies we all get to see or by using an unofficial fiat to end the competition before it begins, we as viewers are denied the chance to see and experience these films absent whatever agenda the branch chooses to promote.

No better was this illustrated than with one of this year’s nominees, A House Made of Splinters. Shortlisted and nominated without any public release whatsoever (documentaries have different eligibility rules than movies on the general ballot), fans were left in suspense for weeks, wondering if the Academy was really about to give an Oscar to a film that literally no one could watch, which would be the absolute rock bottom of the organization’s spiral towards irrelevance. From the moment it was revealed as a semifinalist, there was not a single span of 48 hours that went by without me scouring the internet for even the slightest hint of news about where or when it might be playing. As I explained in the final “Back Row Thoughts” column on this year’s shortlist, I was finally able to find a free screening at USC, which included an in-person Q&A with the director afterward. I leaped at the opportunity, and went on a little adventure to the campus, the first time I set foot on any college property in at least a decade. As I made my way back home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had jumped through far too many hoops, and I sincerely thought that I was one of the “lucky” ones, to say nothing of the multitudes who would never get this chance.

The reason no one got to see it for so long was because the film did not have a distributor in North America. For those unaware, almost no movie in this country gets released on its own by those who made it. The “rights” to distribute are either written into the production contract if a picture is put out by a major studio, or sold to a third party, who then gets to profit off of leasing it to theatres. Distributors are middle men and hangers-on who somehow got built into the business model, and Splinters didn’t have one. Ergo, it was not available to eager viewers, because individual theatres and chains weren’t able to negotiate directly with the producers.

Thankfully for Oscar hunters, the situation was eventually resolved, and two weeks ago, it was released for rental on VOD platforms. But it should have never come to that. The fact that a film can win at Sundance, get nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and then become shortlisted and nominated for an Oscar, but STILL NOT BE WORTHY OF HAVING A FOR-PROFIT ENTITY CHOOSE TO MAKE MONEY OFF IT, is the absolute height of bullshit, and yet another crystallizing example of everything that’s wrong with this process.

But rather than just complain, I do have a solution, at least in this narrow context. The Academy can simply change its rules and make itself the de facto distributor as a backup. As I mentioned, documentaries achieve eligibility through a different process than films under general consideration. Rather than a qualifying theatrical run, they have to be showcased at film festivals recognized by the Academy. Once accepted, the docs are made available through the Academy Screening Room online hub for members to view, rate, and vote.

Well, why not just create a similar portal for the public? Just write it into the rules that by entering a film, the production company agrees to the stipulation that if they don’t have an outside distributor, the Academy will put their movie out as part of a block for this one avenue. Once the shortlist becomes announced, all 15 films become available through the Academy for the public to watch for a nominal fee, say, $50. That money goes to back to the productions, either as income and/or a waiver of entry fees, and we as the movie-going public get to actually watch the art that membership has decided is worthy of further consideration. If a film already has distribution, then their pimps can recoup part of that $50. When the nominees are revealed, do the same thing, only as a block of five, which can either be viewed online or in theatres (similar to how the Short Film categories are distributed by the Academy in conjunction with ShortsTV), for a discounted fee. Who says no to this, other than dipshit corporate gatekeepers?

Because let’s put the finest of points on this. If the American public doesn’t have a reasonable ability to see a movie, it should not be eligible for the Academy Awards, period. People are already disillusioned with the Oscars in part because of the perception of elitism and being out of touch with the common man, especially the ones who can’t afford $20 a pop to wait through a half-hour of trailers and Nicole Kidman patronizing them in order to see the films that aren’t even good enough to win these awards. To then say that you’re giving full consideration and praise to works that can’t or won’t be seen at all is to point a shotgun directly at your feet and gleefully pull the trigger.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Feature are…

All That Breathes – Shaunak Sen, Aman Mann, and Teddy Leifer

This year’s shortlist was particularly strong, to the point that the lowest grade I gave to any of the semifinalists was a B-. As such, there’s not much I can say about any of the nominees that I haven’t said already, and the rankings truly are by a matter of degrees. Still, you came here for analysis, so I’ll do my best to highlight a few things here and there with each candidate.

If there’s an overriding theme to this year’s class, it’s empathy. In at least four of the five hopefuls, the idea of taking care of the vulnerable is central to the film’s premise, and I’d even make a case for the fifth one as well, though it’s to a decidedly lesser extent. For All That Breathes, this message gets across through the care that our core trio gives to kite birds. Brothers Saud and Nadeem, as well as their friend Salik, run a makeshift clinic in the shared basement of their apartment building, where they tend to kites and other fowl that have fallen out of the sky and injured their wings due to inhaling the massive air pollution in New Delhi. Despite sharp talons and beaks, and a somewhat unpredictable nature (in a comical scene, one bird literally stalks Salik before swooping in to snatch the glasses right off of his face), the three invest tons of time and money into the convalescence of thousands of birds.

They do this in spite of the fact that kites are not viewed fondly by the majority of the area. As carnivorous birds, the majority Hindu population sees kites and other raptors as pests, and the men are offered almost no assistance from the government or through charities. However, in their Muslim faith, tradition holds that kites expel evil spirits and bad luck, so it is considered a good moral deed to help them, but they must largely take it upon themselves to house, heal, and feed the birds (and it costs way more than tuppence a bag).

Still, the labor of love shines through, and despite the sacrifice, their hard work pays off, both in personal satisfaction, and in the form of new opportunities, as advocacy groups help them to raise money for a real clinic, and Saud is accepted to study veterinary medicine in the States. The film works because it gives us a case where pure goodwill can overcome the myriad problems the world faces today in the forms of sectarian bigotry and violence, as well as climate change.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – Laura Poitras, Howard Gertier, John Lyons, Nan Goldin, and Yoni Golijov

I said when I first reviewed this film that I was in awe of Nan Goldin, both for her artistic abilities as well as her crusades for social and political justice, and I continue to be. Her work proves that empathy doesn’t always have to come in nice, pleasant packages. Sometimes it can be confrontational, calling people out who deserve it, in order to stick up for those who’ve been hurt the most.

Famous in her own right as a trailblazing art photographer, Goldin took her own addiction issues with opioids and turned them into weapons against a powerful entity that seeks to exploit her medium by buying preemptive forgiveness for what many could reasonably argue is a form of modern genocide. The Sackler family that runs Purdue Pharma, and who has knowingly profited off the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands in this country alone, works tirelessly to maintain a positive public image through disingenuous philanthropy and patronage of the arts. Understanding the quixotic and Sisyphean nature of efforts to use government and the legal system to take down these monsters, Goldin has decided to win whatever small victories may be had, chiefly in getting the Sackler name off of art galleries, and convincing museums the world over to stop taking their blood money. Experiencing this trauma first-hand gives Goldin a crucial (but sadly not unique) credibility in leading this fight, making her instantly relatable and ceaselessly engaging.

The old adage says that art comes from pain. What someone is able to do with that pain is what defines them as an artist. Goldin has shown the world what she can do with hers, and I’m still inspired by it months after seeing the film.

Fire of Love – Sara Dosa, Shane Boris, and Ina Fichman

This is probably the hardest of the group to make a case for empathy, but it is lingering along the margins. The core of the story is about Katia and Maurice Krafft, two scientists who fell in love over their passion for volcanology, and who eventually not only married, but continued to do dangerous and thankless work studying volcanoes until it eventually cost them their lives back in 1991. If you want to look at the film through the lens of what seems to be the Documentary Branch’s main theme for the year, the biggest takeaway is that these two worked and loved together until the very end in service of expanding knowledge that helps communities at risk from these seismic events better predict their onset, prepare for the fallout, and protect their people. Undoubtedly thousands, if not millions, of lives have been saved because of their research.

When taken from that angle, this film shines just a bit more brightly than it does without that added context, and even then, it’s still pretty great. I really enjoyed getting to know Katia and Maurice as people, particularly Maurice, as his jovial personality was made for television cameras. It was also fascinating to learn about their discoveries, as volcanoes are just as deadly as they are beautiful to behold.

Unfortunately, archive documentaries are double-edged swords, because while I see the love of fire, I rarely see the titular fire of love. Most of Katia and Maurice’s relationship is talked about rather than shown, with (if I recall correctly) still photos that Katia saved doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to demonstrating their romantic lives together. I don’t doubt that they were madly in love with one another, but when you make this kind of film, you’re at the mercy of whatever the pre-existing footage gives you, and sadly, there wasn’t enough to truly reinforce the core concept. It’s still very entertaining and unique, and it’s definitely the most crowd-friendly of this year’s nominees, giving it a strong chance to win. But I’d be lying if I said I came away fully satisfied with the idea of their romance. Still really good, though.

A House Made of Splinters РSimon Lereng Wilmont and Monica Hellström

On an unseasonably cold Sunday in May of 1996, on televisions across the land, a clarion call was issued to the masses by one Helen Lovejoy, who, in an act of sanctimonious exasperation exclaimed, “Won’t someone please think of the children?!” Thus, one of the longest and best running gags on The Simpsons was born. But what if someone actually lived up to that mantra?

Enter Simon Lereng Wilmont, who followed up his previously shortlisted documentary, The Distant Barking of Dogs, with an even more poignant and heart-wrenching look at displaced children in Ukraine. All but impossible to see until a fortnight ago, this film is an urgent and essential exercise in caring, one that is especially crucial given Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Oh yeah, all the hyper-emotional stuff in this film happened nearly 18 months before the war.

Taking place in a temporary shelter for children whose parents are deemed unfit, the film is a chronicle of three in particular (Eva, Sasha, and Kolya), who do their best to cope with life in this group home, trying to have as normal a childhood as possible while still holding out hope that their family situations will improve, either by their parents getting their collective shit together, or by being adopted into a new, more loving home. By pure coincidence (according to Wilmont in the Q&A after the screening I attended), these three also represent the three possible ways that a child leaves the facility, because again, this only a temporary way station, with regulations stating that the kids can only live there for nine months (many leave only to cycle back in for another nine after a brief respite). They can either go back to their families (in one form or another), be adopted by a new one, or wind up in the state orphanage, where they’re at even more risk of becoming a statistic.

Watching these innocents process their trauma in real time is a triggering experience in and of itself, and the resilience they show is enough to make you stand and cheer… you know, when you’re not busy wiping the tears from your own eyes. Even more impressive at points is the tenderness and honesty with which the social workers and child psychologists who run the center administer their services. They give the children the love and attention they need to have a chance at a better life, while also refusing to shield them from the realities of the outside world that are all too eagerly rushing to greet them.

The fact that this couldn’t get any kind of distribution in this country until mid-February is criminal, and again, completely unnecessary, as the film has been publicly available on the BBC for citizens of the U.K. for months without any of this rigmarole. In an age where an egomaniacal murderous madman is trying to wipe these kids, their families, and their country off the face of the Earth, their plight almost went completely unseen within our borders because no one thought they could properly profit off of it. Yeesh.

Navalny – Daniel Roher, Odessa Rae, Diane Becker, Melanie Miller, and Shane Boris

Hey, Shane Boris is nominated twice this year. Good for him! You don’t often see that in this category.

Anyway, speaking of that egomaniacal murderous madman, this film is the story about the last legitimate threat to his total grip on power in Russia, opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Running to unseat Putin on a platform of ending corruption and respecting human and civil rights (what could be more empathetic than serving as a man of the people), Navalny’s campaign was scuttled by Putin himself, as he first made Navalny’s candidacy illegal, and then tried to have him assassinated. Proving once again that pride is only trumped by stupidity, Putin even used the same chemical agents he used to poison a former spy in England just a couple of years prior, the brazenness of his actions matched only by the smugness with which he tried to wave it off and pretend he didn’t do it.

This surprisingly even-handed work takes a first-person look at Navalny as a person, a politician, and finally, as a survivor. His oh-so-radical ideas of ending cronyism, taxing oligarchs, and siding against dictators instead of with them was so dangerous in Putin’s eyes that he had to be eliminated, which would take a profound toll on any person, even one as generally jovial as Navalny. He’s measured, self-aware (even admitting to his own shortcomings early in his career when he was willing to work with some truly hateful people to advance unrelated common goals), self-effacing, and most importantly, genuine and smart. The scene where he’s able to trick one of the government scientists who engineered the failed attempt on his life to confessing over the phone is one of the most hilarious, cathartic, and disturbing scenes of the year, regardless of genre.

Navalny is now a political prisoner, willingly serving hard time for daring to oppose Putin, and as such he’s become a living, breathing martyr. The film serves as his mission statement in the moment and could become his epitaph and rallying point should the worst come to pass.

My Rankings:
1) A House Made of Splinters
2) All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
3) All That Breathes
4) Navalny
5) Fire of Love

As promised when I finally completed Splinters, and as I do every year, I will now rank the entire shortlist of 15 films. This is by far the strongest field of semifinalists I’ve ever seen in full, with five of the films earning an “A” grade from me (including two of our nominees), and another five receiving an “A-” (also including two nominees). As I said, the lowest grade of all 15 is only a “B-,” and that’s because I felt the overall project was a tad incomplete. Normally there are entries that I either think are subpar or that I outright despise. No such thing this year.

1) Moonage Daydream
2) Bad Axe
3) A House Made of Splinters
4) All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
5) Hidden Letters
6) Children of the Mist
7) Last Flight Home
8) All That Breathes
9) Navalny
10) The Territory
11) The Janes
12) Fire of Love
13) Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
14) Descendant
15) Retrograde

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, 22 categories up, 22 down, and only one remains. It’s the big one, the one we all came here for. At long last, it’s Best Picture!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which documentaries were your favorites? How can we improve the distribution model for nominated films? Should the rules be changed to force wide access for any nominee? Let me know!

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