Joey Moser offers his take on all the non-fiction features up for this Sunday’s Oscars.
In my demented quest to see every single nominated film this year, I was finally able to watch all of the Best Documentary Feature nominees. I don’t think there’s a stinker in the bunch, and I could see a case for every single one winning. Most are not in the English language and two deal with very similar subject matter, but I don’t think this race is sewn up yet. I believe the two best films, For Sama and The Cave, should be given more serious consideration.
Netflix’s American Factory was the last nominee that I watched, and I can see why it is the presumed frontrunner. I thought the film was going to have a happier ending, but I am glad it doesn’t shy away from the disappointment and sadness. The shots of the American workers walking into work have a nostalgic quality that I’m sure a lot of voters will respond to — it oddly reminded me of my dad, even though he never did anything remotely resembling working in a glass factory. I do think the film sags in the middle a bit — right before the serious talks of unionizing Fuyao Glass. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert are always really excited to talk about their film, and there is a short chat with them and Barack and Michelle Obama available on Netflix that is a nice conclusion to the story.
The film most polar opposite from American Factory in this race is probably Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland. I adored this film for its simplicity and how it allows the story to seemingly come alive before our very eyes. I never thought any of it felt overly produced or manipulated. I wonder if people will be turned off by the family that comes in and sets up their own honey business, because I wanted to run to Macedonia and tell them to leave Hatidze Muratova and her mother alone. It’s clearly beloved since it’s nominated in two categories (Documentary Feature and International Film) and it won the New York Film Critics Circle as well as a slew of regional critics awards. I fell in love with Hatizde and just wanted her to prosper and succeed, but that other family bugged the hell out of me.
I watched Netflix’s The Edge of Democracy on the same day the impeachment proceedings were finalized, so it may have colored my impression of the film. I was worried that I wouldn’t have understood Brazil’s political history, but director Petra Costa makes it so personal that it feels more like a memoir than a sweeping political soap opera. The entire time I was watching the discourse unfold, I kept thinking of how divided we are as a country. Donald Trump doesn’t make an appearance in the film at all — there is a man wearing a mask briefly at the end, you’ve been warned — but civility is gone. Costa’s calm narration does soothe you, but you can feel your heart beating throughout the entire viewing experience. Since we are about to sit through another (potential) garbage fire of an election, I’m not sure if viewers will want to watch Democracy, but Costa’s confident direction makes it a worthy watch.
I would be happy if For Sama or The Cave won this Oscar. Sama has won a BAFTA and four British Independent Film Awards, so it might be the one to upset American Factory. Both docs center on women during wartime: Sama takes place during the uprising in Aleppo over the course of five years, and The Cave follows a group of women as they struggle to work at an underground hospital during Syrian airstrikes. Sama‘s director, Waad Al-Kateab, films everything with a “this needs to be seen” energy because she is chronicling a world for her daughter to see. It’s both gentle and earnest, angry and heartbreaking. I want it to win so badly.
The Cave is a testament to human resilience unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. We can literally hear the building around the underground hospital rumbling, and the doctors and nurses keep going in the face or possible death. We see them hold back fear and put their terror aside to be able to help their patients. Towards the end, there is a possible chemical attack and that was in the last half hour. It’s relentless, and I was blown away by Feras Feyyad’s film.