Are these the documentaries to beat at the Oscars? A look at some of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival’s Docs to Watch.
Every year, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg hosts SCAD Savannah Film Festival’s Docs to Watch panel, and this year’s panelists included:
- Julie Cohen, co-director of Julia
- Matthew Heineman, director of The First Wave
- Evgeny Afineevsky, director of Francesco
- Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-director of The Rescue
- Todd Haynes, director of The Velvet Underground
- Jonas Poher Rasmussen, director of Flee
- Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, director of Summer of Soul
- Amanda Lipitz, director of Found
- Liz Garbus, director of Becoming Cousteau
- Robert Greene, director of Procession
I had the chance to see five of the films at the festival (Flee mentioned in my previous festival post), with one in particular standing out among the pack.
The First Wave
It’s amazing to watch this documentary that takes place at the beginning of the pandemic, from March 2020 to June 2020, and note how dated it feels, through no fault of its own. In just a matter of months, it has become a time capsule, a relic from 2020. Intimately invasive, director Matthew Heineman takes you inside the early days of COVID at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, into the lives of the frontline workers and those patients who are also battling the virus themselves. At times, it feels wrong to watch, especially when one man gasps his last breaths on a gurney before being put into a body bag and stored in a freezer with the other deceased. The toll that COVID takes on its patients is still jarring, even after all of these months, but it’s the affect it has on the nurses and doctors that’s the most moving aspect of this documentary.
Back in the summer of 2018, everyone around the world was glued to the story of the rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team stuck in the cave in Thailand. Little did we know at the time that all of the boys would get out, but that also a documentary team would be capturing all of the breathtaking footage (literally—it’s hard not to watch this documentary and not feel your heart race). Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin take audiences inside this extraordinary journey and the heroes who risked everything to get them out, one sadly losing his life in the process. It’s just as unbelievable that Vasarhelyi and Chin put this film together as it is that the dive team was able to pull off the unthinkable.
Liz Garbus is a director who can do anything, from true crime like HBO’s limited docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark to most recently The Handmaid’s Tale finale. With Becoming Cousteau, she explores the life of French sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and why there will never be another one like him. Garbus dives into how Cousteau turned one of his faults (taking money from oil companies to fund his exhibitions) into a lifelong pursuit toward preserving the oceans. In 2021, it’s comforting to see a world-renowned personality take ownership of his actions and attempt to do something good about it. That accountability is something that’s as precious a resource as the sea.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Robert Greene’s Netflix documentary Procession. Following the cold open of a press conference that details priest molestation charges in Kansas City, the documentary suddenly takes a stark turn, placing the victims, grown men who’ve carried this abuse for years, as characters in a horror sequence at a church. It almost feels like a B movie, until you realize that you’re not watching this sequence for the performance. Greene plays a very risky game with this project, where he takes real-life victims and has them stage the worst scenes of their life for dramatization. It’s hard not to think that at any moment, the project could fall apart. But it’s all for these victims to take back these moments in their life and learn to move forward. By the end of Procession, I was blown away by the journey we went on with these men. I’ve never seen a documentary that mixes experimental elements with true crime and therapy. Procession is truly not just an achievement in filmmaking, but in showcasing the power of art as a way of healing.