It’s been said time and again that the Academy’s documentary branch is a consistently unpredictable bunch. But are they?
Given their Oscar nomination track record, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. The group has made their likes and dislikes perfectly clear in recent years. They enjoy recognizing international productions as well as newcomers. In the past two decades alone, 12 directors have taken home the Academy Award for their very first documentary theatrical feature. They include Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”), Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) and Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugarman”). Big box office numbers also don’t impress this nonfiction crowd. Examples include snubbing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” ($22.8 million) “Three Identical Strangers” ($13.4 million) and this year’s “Apollo 11” ($15.3 million). They also aren’t awed by archival footage. (Again: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Apollo 11”.) And they especially do not like being told which docus are frontrunners. (Remember Brett Morgen’s “Jane?”) While the highly competitive nonfiction branch is a breath of fresh air when it comes to gender parity, whether they are picking the “best” docu of the year is and has been the subject of much debate.
This year, after narrowing down a 159 eligible features to a remarkably strong shortlist of 15 docs, the nonfiction branch whittled down that batch to five nominees: “American Factory,” “The Cave,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “For Sama,” and “Honeyland.” A total of eight directors are nominated in the category. Four are female.
The only soley American production, “American Factory” is also the frontrunner. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s film about the Chinese takeover of a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, has captured the attention of audiences and critics alike. With the promise of giving work to more than 2,000 local residents, along with bringing hundreds of Chinese workers to Ohio, tensions run high among the Americans due to low wages and concerns about safety. The film, the first in the Obamas‘ Higher Ground slate, has garnered plenty of hardware since its Sundance 2019 debut. Bognar and Reichert have picked up directing kudos from the Sundance fest, the International Documentary Association and the Critics Choice Documentary Association. The duo recently won the DGA documentary award as well as a Gotham and a Los Angeles Film Critics trophy, and it is nominated for a BAFTA and an Indie Spirit.
Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” is also a Netflix doc. A cinematic personal essay about Brazil’s far-right takeover, Costa’s film made its world premiere at Sundance 2019. While the film has won over critics, it has not garnered nearly as much hardware as “American Factory.” With two “children” in the game, it’s anyone’s guess if and how Netflix will equally campaign for both docus. The streamer’s deep pockets won’t make it difficult to promote both films, but chances are “American Factory” will experience a tad more love due to the wealth of recognition it has received.
Plenty of money and love were thrown at National Geographic’s “Free Solo” Oscar campaign last year. This year the distributor has Feras Fayyad “The Cave” in the race. The film, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, plunges viewers into the midst of Syria’s civil war and viscerally illustrates the human cost of a struggle that is now in its ninth year. In addition to earning rave reviews, the film was nominated for a PGA as well as a DGA award and has garnered Critics Choice Documentary, Cinema Eye and IDA awards. In December Fayyad, a Syrian-born filmmaker, was not able to attend the IDA Awards where he should have accepted his prize for best writing, as he was denied a visa to enter the country. He is currently in Copenhagen trying to obtain a visa so he can attend the Oscar ceremony.
Directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s “For Sama” also focused their lenses on Syria. A portrait of a Syrian mother’s experience of her country’s plight, the docu had its world premiere in March at the SXSW Festival and won the documentary feature competition’s grand jury and audience awards. The film, which recently cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards, winning the prize for best British independent film, is arguably “American Factory’s” biggest competition. In December Al-Kateab and Watts took home IDA’s best feature kudo. (Al-Kateab also received the org’s Courage Under Fire Award.) In addition to being nominated for four BAFTA’s and an Indie Spirit, the PBS docu won the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression trophy and the Cannes Film Festival Golden Eye award.
Another big trophy winner is Neon’s “Honeyland.” From filmmaking duo Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, the doc is set in a remote North Macedonia where a beekeeper lives with her ailing mother in a village without roads, electricity or running water. She’s the last in a long line of wild beekeepers, eking out a living farming honey. The film made history when it became the first nonfiction feature to be nominated in the docu category as well as the international feature film category. The nomination marks the first Macedonian film to be nominated in the category in 25 years. The last time a Macedonian film received an Academy Award nomination was in 1994 for Milcho Manchevski’s “Before the Rain.” While “Honeyland” has been described as a cinematic masterpiece and is a critic as well as a festival favorite – doc garnered three 2019 Sundance awards: world cinema grand jury prize: documentary, world cinema documentary special jury award for cinematography, and world cinema dramatic special jury award for originality – the film’s chances of winning the little gold man against the behemoth that is Netflix appear slim.