Oscars: How the Documentary Feature Nominees Explore Global Issues

10:06 AM 1/24/2020

by Adam Benzine and Katie Campione

'American Factory,' 'The Cave,' 'The Edge of Democracy,' 'For Sama' and 'Honeyland' take viewers to Brazil, Syria, North Macedonia, China and even Ohio.

Courtesy Photos

  • 'The Edge of Democracy'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    An impeachment trial that divides the country. Large crowds chanting to "lock up" their right-wing candidate's political opponent. And the rise of an authoritarian leader who threatens to undercut democracy and the rule of law. Sound familiar?

    In Netflix's The Edge of Democracy, nominated for best documentary feature, Brazilian writer-director Petra Costa delves into her country's messy political history — and in the process presents a dark "distorted mirror" of the myriad crises facing the U.S. today. With remarkable access to former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer — as well as the current hardline president, Jair Bolsonaro — Costa documents Brazil's fraying democracy through the prism of her family's own history, contrasting the views of her right-wing, industrialist grandparents with the ideals of her left-wing, freedom-fighter parents.

    What was your reaction to being nominated?

    I was with my mother, my boyfriend and my grandfather, and on a call with my producer Joanna [Natasegara]. We'd had a very depressing call just beforehand, consoling ourselves that this wouldn't happen and thinking about how we would survive the next step. We were really not expecting this at all, it was such a huge surprise. We were screaming like crazy.

    How have viewers reacted to the film in Brazil?

    The film has been explosive in Brazil. There was one tweet [about the film] per minute for the first month of release, and Netflix recently announced that it was the second-most-watched documentary on its platform in 2019. It really triggered a huge political debate. I've received messages that were really gratifying from people, but of course there were also attacks of all sorts. The nomination became the most talked-about topic on Twitter in Brazil. And there were some interesting comments from Bolsonaro himself, saying that the film is not a documentary but a fiction, and only fit for vultures to eat. He also said that he hasn't seen the film.

    Read the rest of the story here.

  • 'American Factory'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Produced by the Obamas, American Factory checks in on the General Motors plant that directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar explored in their 2009 short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which was also nominated for an Academy Award.

  • 'The Cave'

    Courtesy of National Geographic

    For The Cave, director Feras Fayyad returns to his native Syria, this time to document a team of female doctors working in an underground hospital. Fayyad was previously nominated for his 2017 film, the Syrian war documentary Last Men in Aleppo.

  • 'For Sama'

    Channel 4 News

    For Sama documents the Syrian war from a personal perspective. Directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts drew from more than 500 hours of footage recorded by al-Kateab, starting as a student in Aleppo through the birth of her first daughter.

  • 'Honeyland'

    Samir Ljuma

    Shot with a skeleton crew over three years, Honeyland intimately follows one of the last female wild beekeepers in Europe as her livelihood is threatened by a wayfaring family that joins her tiny Macedonian village deep in the Balkans.

    A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.