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Oscars: How the Doc Branch Puts Women and International Stories Front and Center (Column)

For Sama SXSW Cannes Documentary
Courtesy of Abd Alkader Habak

For female filmmakers in the industry, this year’s round of Oscar nominations – in which acclaimed female-helmed films such as “Hustlers” and “The Farewell” were shut out in place of male-directed Best Picture nominees predominantly centred on stories of white men – told a frustratingly familiar story. But in the Academy’s non-fiction branch, a different narrative was being written.

Not only did the Best Documentary Feature category achieve directorial gender parity, with four female and four male nominees, but female filmmakers led men overall, with 13 nominees to 12 across both feature and doc short categories.

The branch celebrated newcomers such as Waad al-Kateab (“For Sama”), Tamara Kotevska (“Honeyland”) and Smriti Mundhra (“St. Louis Superman”); mid-career filmmakers such as Sigrid Dyekjær (“The Cave”) and Joanna Natasegara (“The Edge of Democracy”); and established documentarians such as Julia Reichert (“American Factory”).

The latter duo both achieved remarkable feats that garnered little mainstream press coverage: Reichert won her fourth Oscar nomination, for co-directing the Obamas-backed frontrunner “American Factory,” 42 years after her first, for 1976’s “Union Maids.”

And Natasegara is on a hot streak, landing her third nomination in five years for producing “The Edge of Democracy,” on the heels of 2017 doc short winner “The White Helmets” and 2015 feature nominee “Virunga.”

“The fiction sphere of filmmaking should learn from the documentaries here, in terms of diversity,” says Petra Costa, the Brazilian writer-director behind “The Edge of Democracy” and a first-time nominee this year.

“It’s been consistent that there are many more women directing documentaries than fiction, and (it’s) because we don’t depend on white male producers to choose us to be in this position.

“It’s unfortunate that in a year with strong female filmmakers, none of them were chosen in the Best Director category,” she adds. “I hope that will change, and people will continue to bring attention to that, because it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make films. What brought me to filmmaking is that I did not see, onscreen, the stories I lived as a woman.”

The achievements of women aren’t just behind the camera. Onscreen, the doc branch placed female subjects front and centre, with four of the five feature nominees centring on stories of determined women.

“For Sama” and “The Cave” both tell stories of resilient, commanding heroines, fighting their way through impossible circumstances in Syria. “Honeyland” follows a female wild beekeeper, working diligently in North Macedonia to preserve the natural balance, and “The Edge of Democracy” sees Costa taking the audience on a personal journey through Brazil’s challenging history.

There were even more women’s stories to be found across the 15-strong shortlist that preceded nominations: “Maiden” told the story of the first all-female crew in a round-the-world boat race. “Advocate” focused on fierce Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel. “One Child Nation” examined China from the perspective of a female filmmaker. And “Knock Down the House” followed four fierce Americans running for congress, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

And might one read the branch’s surprise snub of box office smash “Apollo 11” as an implicit rejection of a focus on white men’s achievements and 1960s attitudes? Perhaps.

Almost as notable as the directorial gender balance is the fact that this year’s nominees represent a broad variety of international stories, with “American Factory” the only feature doc set in the U.S.

For first-time nominee Laura Nix, the issue of directorial opportunity partly comes down to money. Nix directed the New York Times-backed doc short “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” which focuses on a Vietnamese couple that reunites in California.

She originally set out to make the film as a feature, but struggled with financing.

“No matter what genre you’re in, when there’s more money in the budget, there’s less participation of women,” she says. “We have more participation of women (in documentaries) because the films are less expensive to make. But even within our field, when you see the higher-budget documentary films, you see less participation of women than at the lower levels.”

She also points out that, while female documentarians have made gains in recent years, “it tends to be more white women” making those gains.

“Until we have proper representation of races and ethnicities for women in those categories as well, then we still have work to do,” Nix offers. “We still are not representing the multiplicity of voices in cinema that we need to be hearing from. And I think that’s going to be the case for quite a long time.”

Since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016, AMPAS’s documentary branch has been one of the most proactive in diversifying its membership, significantly loosening – and in some cases entirely abandoning – its eligibility criteria, in a bid to admit more women, more international filmmakers, and more people of color.

The question now facing the broader AMPAS membership is whether the doc categories will continue to be a progressive outlier – uniquely representing gender parity and the diverse makeup of the international filmmaking community – or whether the non-fiction branch’s gains can be adopted as a blueprint for the future of the Academy Awards.

Only time will tell.