Oscar documentary branch voters can’t be accused of parochialism. They ventured far and wide to select their shortlist of feature documentaries for 2023, tapping films from countries as varied as a U.N. roll call: Ukraine, Uganda, Poland, Denmark, Tunisia, Canada and the United States.
To Kill a Tiger, one of the 15 finalists, unfolds in a village in the Indian state of Jharkhand. Nisha Pahuja, who was born in India and raised in Canada, directed the film about a humble couple who fight for justice after their 13-year-old daughter is sexually assaulted by three men. Before the shortlist was announced, Pahuja wondered whether doc branch members would embrace her documentary. “It’s a Canadian film, but it’s an Indian story,” she said, “and it’s subtitled.”
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Pahuja needn’t have worried. Neither subtitles nor remote settings deter today’s documentary branch, whose membership is far less insular than it used to be. Beginning around 2017, the branch added hundreds of filmmakers, many from abroad, under an initiative spearheaded by Roger Ross Williams, then on the Academy’s board of governors representing the nonfiction wing. “We invited an unprecedented number of international members,” Williams recalls. “And now we’re the most international branch of the Academy.”
Along with To Kill a Tiger, shortlisted films with an international dimension include two focusing on the war in Ukraine: 20 Days in Mariupol, directed by Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, documents Russia’s brutal assault on civilians in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the early days of its invasion; In the Rearview, from Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela, consists of scenes shot inside a minivan transporting Ukrainian civilians to safety across the border into Poland.
Hamela wasn’t confident In the Rearview would make the shortlist because it hadn’t been distributed in the U.S., but the doc branch had his back. “I’m thrilled at this distinction,” he says. “And I’m grateful for the honesty and bravery of all those who shared their stories with us during the evacuations. The power of their testimony speaks for itself.”
Shortlisted Apolonia, Apolonia, directed by Denmark’s Lea Glob, also lacked U.S. distribution until a few days ago, when North American rights were acquired by Grasshopper Film and Documentary+ (it opened at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in Manhattan on Friday). The film revolves around gifted French artist Apolonia Sokol, whose emerging talent makes her a mark for less than scrupulous powerbrokers in the art world.
Four Daughters, from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, tells the story of Olfa Hamrouni, a working-class woman who raised four girls in Tunisia. The Arab Spring unleashed a wave of Islamist fervor in the country, and Olfa’s two eldest daughters became swept up the fanatical religious movement, eventually joining ISIS in Libya. Ben Hania uses actresses to portray the missing siblings, and Hind Sabri, a star of Arab cinema, to play Olfa.
Ben Hania says it took her a long time to decide to incorporate actors into her film. “When you think about the past in general, in classical documentary, you think about reenactment, and I hate reenactment. So, I told myself, it’s such a cliché, I will hack it,” she says. “I’ll use reenactment, but as I want it, and to serve the story.”
Ugandan-born filmmakers Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp teamed up for the shortlisted Bobi Wine: The People’s President, from National Geographic Documentary Films. It’s the story of the titular Ugandan pop star, who gave up a comfortable career as a musician to enter politics. He put his life at risk by daring to run for president against Uganda’s ruthless dictator, Gen. Yoweri Museveni.
Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, one of the international-based directors invited to join the documentary branch during Roger Ross Williams’ tenure as governor, earned a place on the shortlist with The Eternal Memory. It tells the love story of Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora, two prominent figures in the arts and media in Chile, who remained deeply bonded with each other even after Góngora was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 62. Alberdi recalls Urrutia telling her, “Memory isn’t constructed alone, it’s constructed collectively. So, even if Augusto is losing his memory, I am his memory, like, we are a memory together.”
International documentaries not only have populated the Oscar shortlist in recent years, but they’ve gone on to secure nominations, including Honeyland (North Macedonia), Collective (Romania), All That Breathes and Writing with Fire (both from India), A House Made of Splinters and Flee (both from Denmark), The Cave and Of Fathers and Sons (both directed by Syrian filmmakers). Chile’s Alberdi earned an Oscar nomination for her previous documentary, The Mole Agent.
It tends to be American films, however, that go on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And there are plenty of U.S.-made contenders among the 2023 finalists, including American Symphony, the Netflix film directed by Matthew Heineman that’s under the banner of the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground.
Heineman’s documentary explores the rise of musician Jon Batiste, former bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Batiste’s relationship with his wife, Suleika Jaouad. One of the most exciting days of the multi-instrumentalist’s career — when he learned he was nominated for 11 Grammys — became simultaneously one of the most challenging for him and Jaouad as she began chemotherapy for a recurrence of cancer.
“At first, Suleika didn’t want to be part of the film, and she didn’t want to be the ‘sick antidote’ to Jon’s success, which I totally understood,” Heineman says. “It took a lot of conversations and dialogue to make her feel comfortable with both my intentions and the practical realities of what filming might look like. So more than any other film that I’ve made, we were all sort of constantly in dialogue about where we’re at, how we’re feeling, is this OK to keep going.”
American Symphony must be considered a strong favorite to earn an Oscar nomination, along with Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim. The feature from Apple Original Films premiered at Sundance last year, with Fox in person to see the film that traces the arc of his exceptional career and his fight with Parkinson’s disease.
“[When] Davis Guggenheim would like to do a documentary about you — whether you’re in the business or not — you’re going to want to do that, work with someone of that quality, and I certainly did,” Fox recalls. “He understood the writing I’d done and the feeling behind it. It was not a ‘Oh, what terrible things happened to you with Parkinson’s’ story, it was a story about what great things happen to you when you’re alive.”
The American contenders on the shortlist continue with Beyond Utopia, Madeleine Gavin’s award-winning film that exposes the brutal reality of life in North Korea; A Still Small Voice, directed by Luke Lorentzen, and the innovative sonic documentary 32 Sounds from director Sam Green. The latter film is described as a “profound sensory experience… a meditation on the power of sound to bend time, cross borders, and profoundly shape our perception of the world around us.”
Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy earned posthumous recognition for Nancy Buirski, a beloved and respected documentarian who died unexpectedly in August.
Roger Ross Williams, the American filmmaker who has done so much to boost international directors in the doc branch, also saw his latest documentary, Stamped From the Beginning, make the shortlist. His film, a Netflix title, documents the impact of anti-Black ideology from the origins of the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the present day.
Williams adapted Stamped from the bestselling nonfiction work by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, an opus that has been banned from schools in several states. The director sees the shortlist recognition, and the film’s success on Netflix, as signs that nonfiction films don’t have to foreground celebrities to find an audience.
“That’s contrary to all what people are saying, that a documentary that is serious and deals with an important social issue like racism — it’s hard to get that documentary made and seen,” Williams says. “But when that happens, people watch it, and people pay attention and people realize how important it is. And maybe in certain states you can’t read Kendi’s book, but you can’t ban Netflix.”
HBO’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project also takes on structural racism by probing the work of poet Nikki Giovanni, a vital voice in American life for more than 50 years now. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson directed the documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
“In the ’70s [Giovanni] was on Black radio. She was doing music to poetry before hip hop,” Stephenson notes. “I grew up in Canada. But after… going to college with specific classes that I was taking, I became familiar with her and Ntozake Shange and I’ve been in love with her work ever since.”
Brewster, who grew up in Los Angeles, became aware of Giovanni’s incisive commentary on American culture going way back. “There was an emotional connection with her,” he says, “because she was saying things I had never heard.”
When the roll call of Oscar nominations is announced later this month, expect a balance in the documentary feature category between U.S. and international films. But as far as the ultimate winner goes, the edge goes to American hopefuls: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie and American Symphony.
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