With the announcement of the Oscar documentary shortlist on February 9, here’s a quick look at four nominees among the record 215 films that qualified for the competition, with around 25 to add. The robust figure comes amid special eligibility rules that take into account the impact of the pandemic on theatrical exhibition.
“A thousand cuts”
Baltimore-based filmmaker Ramona Diaz has been directing films about her native Philippines since starting her documentary career in the late 1990s. One of her first subjects was the Larger-Than-Life Former First Lady from the island nation, Imelda Marcos. Still, the familiar ground was full of surprises when she returned in 2018, intending to film a mosaic-like saga against President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs.
“I’ve always had it like that Robert Altman style ‘Short Cuts’ kind of story,” Diaz said. His cinema, “A thousand cuts”, still has part of that structure, but has become an urgent portrayal of crusader journalist Maria Ressa, whose Rappler website has been targeted by the government for her reporting. Ressa had been arrested and was becoming a global figure when Time magazine named her one of its People of the Year in 2018.
“These were gifts from the documentary gods, which you should be careful of,” said Diaz, whose project also presents a strange mirror to the world beyond Manila, as it details what she calls “the militarization of social media”.
Ressa is released on bail as she appeals a prison sentence of up to six years for cyber defamation, and she faces a slew of other charges. She has become a symbol of resistance against Duterte’s authoritarian regime. “She could possibly go to jail for 100 years,” said Diaz, who captures the journalist’s moving resilience. “She fights to the end.”
Jim LeBrecht had a different relationship with summer camp than most kids. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. “A lot of us had been to camps where we felt really infantilized,” he said. But Camp Jened was something else. “It was a utopia. They said, ‘Hey, you’re a teenager! Let’s have a great summer.
LeBrecht celebrates these summers and the revolution they inspired by “Crip Camp” the story of the Catskills Refuge for Children with Disabilities which in the 1960s and 1970s thrived in a spirit of counter-culture. The sound designer co-directs the Netflix documentary with filmmaker Nicole Newnham – his longtime colleague – and also narrates and shares the screen with fellow campmates who have advanced the legacy of the camp, spearheading the movement for the rights of people with disabilities.
The film, which won the US Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, tells much of its story through archival footage. As Newnham explained, it is used in such a way that as a spectator, “you almost become a camper yourself”. LeBrecht’s connection to subjects also helps spark a rich frankness from his old friends, interviewed as adults.
“There’s a story in our story that’s being told in a way that really blows it up,” LeBrecht said, “and people don’t get it. But we’ve had a chance to say it within the community, in our own voice, and people were really ready to speak the truth. ”
An invigorating chronicle of the first four months of the COVID-19 crisis as it erupts in Wuhan, China, “76 days” offers a crucial first draft of the story from scratch viral.
Hao Wu, a Chinese-American documentary maker, worked with footage shot by two Chinese collaborators, Weixi Chen and a co-director who remains anonymous, intersecting stories he found through scenes filmed in four hospitals. As medical teams battle overwhelming demands, cameras find a soul amid the apocalyptic heckling.
“They show so much compassion and sensitivity towards the people they are filming,” said Wu, who came up with a very hands-on approach to editing the footage. “I tried to follow their lead, to show common humanity even in such dire situations: how people experience their early fear and panic, how people still have a desperate need to connect, how they feel. help each other to survive together. “
Movies truth The approach contrasts with the investigative tone of another recent pandemic documentary, “Totally Under Control,” directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. Wu instead turned to the example of documentary legend Frederick Wiseman, whose immersive films anatomize institutions through keen observation and astute editing. “I had to trust my emotional instinct,” Wu said. “Everyone has a very strong and different emotional rhythm. This is why despite their PPE, the public can follow them.
“Acasa, my house”
What might have been tabloid fodder – the story of a sprawling clan living off the land in an abandoned urban wasteland in Bucharest – becomes a deep exploration of family, nature and contemporary society in “Acasa, My Home ”.
Romanian journalist Radu Ciorniciuc has spent four years filming the Enache family, led by their grizzled patriarch Gica, whose nine children roam the wild habitat of the Bucharest Delta, an ecological wonderland home to hundreds of animal species and vegetable.
“It was a unique story, especially for a person living just two streets away,” said Ciorniciuc, whose fascination led him to a place considered to be no man’s land. A conflict arises when the family is evicted so that the expanse can be reclaimed as the nature reserve of Vacaresti Park. A difficult adjustment to city life brings much needed schooling for children, but also creates new tensions, which the film leaves unresolved amid its award-winning cinematography of the park’s natural splendor.
“It’s never easy to go beyond your own preconceptions to see life,” said the filmmaker. “I’m really proud that we managed to do this … It creates a little more space for the characters to show you the world from their own perspective.”