Oscars: A Closer Look at the 15 Shortlisted Documentary Features

9:24 AM 3/2/2021

by THR staff

Filmmakers reveal what inspired them, how they got subjects to open up and the challenges they faced.

All In The Fight for Democracy Crip Camp Time
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  • 'All In: The Fight for Democracy'

    All In: The Fight for Democracy, which was produced by and features Stacey Abrams as its star subject, delves into the history of and activism surrounding voter disenfranchisement.

    Of her motivation for wanting to explore this topic, Abrams says: "I went for this job in 2018, you might have heard, I ran for governor [of Georgia]. It did not quite work out the way I was intending, and a big part of the challenge was voter suppression. My opponent was the secretary of state [Brian Kemp]. He was responsible for actually running the elections while he was the contestant. So he essentially got to be the referee, the umpire, the scorekeeper and the guy at bat.Shockingly, he won, and over the course of his eight-year tenure as the person in charge of voting rights, he purged 1.4 million people from the rolls. He used a system that the Obama administration warned him was racially discriminatory, and in 2018, 53,000 people were held hostage. Their applications to register were not processed — 70 percent were African American, 80 percent were people of color — and we sued him about it a few years before, when he did it to 34,000 people. He oversaw the closure of 200 polling places, which according to an independent analysis meant that between 54,000 and 85,000 people could physically not cast ballots.

    "When I think about what Jim [LeBrecht] has done with Crip Camp, a lot of the people who were denied the right to vote simply could not physically access the location, and we often don't pay attention to what it means to be rural, disabled, poor when you take away opportunities to physically go to a place to cast a ballot. People who voted by mail, there was a disproportionate number of people of color who had their ballots rejected. And so I didn't become governor. I spent about 10 days being really angry, going through all the stages of grief and suing him. We sued a lot of people. The lawsuits meant we got more votes counted, but it couldn't undo eight years of intentional suppression that was on top of what has been a 20-year effort to block communities of color, poor communities, young people from voting."

    Read more here.

  • 'Boys State'

    Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine discussed their acclaimed documentary feature Boys State along with Steven Garza, one of the 1,000 teenage subjects in the film who participated in the annual event at the University of Texas at Austin.

    The Boys State program takes place over the course of a week in all 50 states, with thousands of high school students participating in mock exercises to build representative state governments from the ground up. Garza himself was one of the teenagers who ran for governor — Boys State’s highest office — and the documentary follows his campaign, from his arrival to the final vote count.

    “It's definitely a force that bites at your heels a little bit,” Garza said of the cameras that followed him for a week. But he also said that his focus during Boys State was entirely on his campaign. “I'm trying to get the signatures to get on this ballot, or I'm trying to write this speech, I'm trying to talk to voters … and it's like, Oh hey, there's a camera there,” he added. “But it really was just a nonfactor in the sense [that] it didn't influence me or anyone else to vote for something.”

    “We’ve never made a movie like this,” said Moss, who is used to following his documentary subjects over the course of years rather than just a few weeks. The production team included 28 crewmembers, with six operating as cinematographers to capture as many facets of Boys State as possible. “What we love about unscripted filmmaking [is] you never know where it's going to take you,” Moss added. “What we never expected was for someone like Steven to emerge as this powerful political voice.”

    Read more here.

  • 'Collective'

    "We're onto something. We don't know if it will turn out to be right or if we're on the wrong track, but let's try."

    This was the call Alexander Nanau received from Romanian journalist Catalin Tolontan in late 2015 after Tolontan had — somewhat reluctantly — agreed to let the director into the newsroom at the Bucharest paper Sports Gazette and film his investigations into Romania's notorious health care system.

    "I had a narrow mind," says Tolontan. "I saw the newsroom as a refuge, with boring norms and standards. I was also worried that our sources, the whistleblowers, might suffer."

    But the chief concern of the editor — who admits to being "far from a film specialist" — was the "disaster" that would unfold when Nanau turned up with his vast 30-man crew (or so he presumed).

    As he soon found out, he had nothing to worry about — for most of the 14 months Nanau spent tracking Tolontan and his small team of investigative reporters, it was just the director, often with a small handheld camera in tow (although occasionally he would be joined by a sound man). Despite the fact that neither director nor journalist had much of an idea of the structure or storyline at the start of filming — beyond an early pitch that Nanau says was to examine "an abuse of power" — what was captured eventually would form the feature documentary Collective, Romania's official submission in the international Oscar category and one of the films shortlisted for best documentary feature.

    Read more here.

  • 'Crip Camp'

    After months of expectation, in April 2019, Barack and Michelle Obama announced the first TV and film projects for their Netflix-based banner Higher Ground Productions. The expansive slate included splashy projects like an adaptation of Pulitzer-winning novel Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, a period drama from Oscar winner Callie Khouri titled Bloom, and an anthology series based on a New York Times’ obituary column, Overlooked. Tucked at the end of the highly anticipated list of titles was the news that Higher Ground had acquired a still in-production and little known documentary: Crip Camp.

    Due to a confluence of Hollywood factors — from the streaming wars to the current "Golden Age" of documentaries — after a five-year-long production process, Crip Camp opened last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

    As Barack Obama was wrapping up his second term in the White House, Crip Camp began its journey to the screen during an hours-long lunch in Oakland, California between collaborators Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. LeBrecht, an award-winning feature and theatrical sound designer and mixer, has worked for decades with Bay Area-based doc filmmakers, including on three features from Emmy-winning doc producer and director, Newnham. For several years, LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida and serves on the board of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, had been attempting to convince his most frequent collaborators to tackle a documentary that focuses on disability and the disability rights movement.

    “I worked on all of these incredible films that were really making an impact on the world, and there were still very few documentaries that were about disability," he says.

    So, it was over lunch that LeBrecht was tossing out several ideas to Newnham for possible features when he brought up summer camp. “He says, ‘I really want to make a film about my summer camp,’" recalls Newnham. "I said, ‘Why?’ And then what came out of his mouth blew my mind.”

    Read more here.

  • 'Dick Johnson Is Dead'

    Dick Johnson Is Dead is an intimate look at the relationship between the eponymous older adult and his family caregiver, in this case the veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. The younger Johnson had helped care for her mother during her battle with dementia, and when her father's diagnosis came, she thought, "I can't go through another bout of dementia, dealing with it in a serious way." This is when she and her dad decided the best way to cope with his eventual death would be to kill him, time and again, onscreen. During Dick Johnson, the titular character meets his end via a set of stairs, a falling air conditioner and renegade lumber. Filmmaker Johnson sees her movie as being akin to Harold and Maude or Monty Python, where something that's traditionally seen as sacred is shown in an irreverent way.

    "Getting this film financed gave me a way to pay myself to stay home and be with my dad," says Johnson. "It's kind of mind-blowing when one finds oneself in the position of being a caregiver, how much it demands, and no one has prepared you for it. I had no idea how demanding this is, and hallucinatory and funny and devastating." It was these dichotomies that come with aging, death and caregiving that Johnson hoped to capture in her feature, the production of which positioned her in conflicting roles as caretaker and filmmaker. She says, "I was challenging my own ethics every step of the way."

    Johnson was able to attend the Sundance Film Festival screening of the doc with her father, who is now in a dementia care facility, where the movie has been screened on multiple occasions for him and the other residents. The younger Johnson shares: "One of the caregivers said to me, 'I took it to show it to my husband and now he understands a little bit of what I'm dealing with.' " As for the filmmaker, she now views the film as a time capsule, capturing her and her father in a specific moment in time, saying, "This movie is alive for me and it will change every time I see it."

    Read more here.

  • 'Gunda'

    "What if I will film animals which normally you meet on the plate?" was the question that Russian director Victor Kossakovsky asked when he set out to make Gunda, a black-and-white documentary feature that follows the lives of a pig named Gunda, her piglets, a one-legged chicken and some cows.

    The filmmaker, who as a child hoped to be a ranger and protect nature himself, spoke to THR about how he pulled off the intimate film, which required him to film the daily lives of farm animals for several months.

    Where did the idea for this film come from?

    I was thinking about it all my life. When I was a kid, I spent a winter once in the countryside between what was Leningrad at that time and is now St. Petersburg, and Moscow. And it was a very cold winter. The people I lived with had a little piglet, and they brought it into the house because it was very cold. He became my best friend. We were running around, enjoying life and enjoying time together. And around New Year's Eve, he became dinner. So then when I became a filmmaker, I wanted to make [a movie about animals] so much.

    How did you find the right pig to feature?

    We were planning a four- or six-month research trip to find the animals, but luckily I found her on the first day — it was the first farm we visited, close to Oslo. It was the first pig we saw. She just came to me. It was so clear. I turned to the producer and said, "We're done. We don't need to search anymore." It was so easy because she immediately communicates with you without a voice. This actually is the best quality of any actor: when he looks to you and you know what he wants to say without his even saying a word.

    Did you have any issues with the animals being skittish around the cameras?

    I said to the producer, "What we have to do is dedicate our time to these animals. We cannot come for one day. We have to respect them. We have to feel their space. We need to spend time with them so they respect us." So we built a house similar to Gunda's original house, but with the ability to have lenses inside the house and my team outside, without disturbing Gunda. Some days she'd be moody, and we wouldn't film. But day by day, she became nice, like a friend.

    Read more here.

  • 'MLK/FBI'

    In 1963, the FBI began wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. with the aim of “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader," as an FBI memo put it at the time. Relying on recently declassified files, Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK/FBI, takes account of that surveillance, the motives behind it and its impact on King.

    "We felt it was important to really look at how King was looked at from the perspective of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, that they considered him a very dangerous man," says Pollard, who is best known for editing Spike Lee’s films. "They were going at him by any means necessary to destroy him. At the same time, we wanted to convey King’s trajectory as we see the FBI is really digging into him, wiretapping, bugging his hotel rooms, and finding out that he was not a monogamous man."

    The film unspools archival imagery of the civil rights movement and the history of the FBI over audio of interviews with figures like historian David Garrow, civil rights leader and King associate Andrew Young, and former FBI director James Comey, who calls the era "the darkest part of the bureau’s history."

    MLK/FBI grapples with how to make sense of the private details of King’s life that the FBI purported to have unearthed, including an explosive allegation that he stood by while a woman was raped. "We didn’t want to titillate people or be sensationalistic," says Pollard. "It was important for us to tell the story in a very professional, serious way, to understand the kind of pressures Dr. King was under ... knowing full well that the FBI were trying to destroy his reputation."

    Read more here.

  • 'The Mole Agent'

    The Mole Agent director Maite Alberdi did not set out to make a documentary about an octogenarian. She originally intended to profile a private detective, but quickly discovered that his newly hired spy, an 83-year-old widower named Sergio Chamy, was a much more compelling subject. (The investigator's regular mole broke his hip, which led to Chamy being hired for the job.)

    The movie, which is also shortlisted for the Oscar for international feature for Chile, follows Chamy as he investigates possible signs of theft and abuse inside a Chilean nursing home. To get her cameras inside, Alberdi told the facility's administrators that she wanted to make an observational documentary about the inner workings of the home over a four-month period. She received signed releases from the owners and residents, and timed the start of her production with Chamy's arranged move-in date. "I felt less guilty about my lie because I thought I was going to make a denounce[ment] of this bad place," says Alberdi. But she soon realized that the residents, who include a diverse array of individuals, from poetry lovers to amateur thieves, were not suffering from abuse but rather from the loneliness and isolation that is common among the elderly, yet is not often seen onscreen in earnest.

    There were many times while filming The Mole Agent that Alberdi feared Chamy would be discovered as he took not-so-subtle notes while pacing the halls or when he would speak to his boss about the investigation on a speaker phone in common areas. But Chamy was never discovered, leaving the director with the task of coming clean to the nursing home's owners and employees about the real nature of the film. She decided the best place to do so would be at the film's first screening. It turned out they weren't angry about the deceit, but grateful for an accurate portrayal of their workplace.

    "As a culture in Latin America, we are in a transition," says Alberdi, who explains that until recently, it was common in Chile that families cared for the elderly at home. But as people move into smaller housing in cities, older adults have been moved out of family homes and into nursing care facilities. "We never establish a bridge between the previous life the [elderly] had and the retirement home," says the filmmaker, who notes that during her time in the nursing home, in-person visits and phone calls were nonexistent.

    Read more here.

  • 'My Octopus Teacher'

    Celebrated for his 2000 film The Great Dance, South African documentary filmmaker Craig Foster found himself, a decade later, exhausted from the pressures of trying to survive as a documentarian. Feeling a sense of detachment from the outside world as well as the people closest to him, Foster attempted to rekindle his passion for life by free-diving in the freezing temps of the Atlantic, vowing to do so every day for a year. It was there, in the kelp forest outside his home on the Western Cape, that he encountered an octopus that would help him reconnect with life, both above and below the surface.

    Foster and his friendship with a cephalopod are the subject of Netflix's first South African nature documentary, directed by first-time South African filmmaker Pippa Ehrlich and British documentarian James Reed. Fellow free-diver and conservation journalist Ehrlich was introduced to Foster's story in early 2017, after diving with the documentarian for about six months. By then, Foster's year with the octopus had come and gone, but the experience had been meticulously documented by Foster and his friend Roger Horrocks, a blue-chip underwater cameraman he would frequently free-dive with. "He hadn't told me much about it, I just knew that he'd had a very meaningful experience with an octopus that he had visited regularly," says Ehrlich. "The opportunity that we had to tell a story that wove feelings and science together in this way felt serendipitous."

    The real challenge for Ehrlich and Foster was going through the hours of material and assembling a narrative that wove together the unlikely parallels of a burned-out documentarian and a common octopus in the Great African Sea Forest. "Our original treatment was much broader, and we probably cut the beginning of that film 50 times," says Ehrlich. "But once we started telling the story of the octopus, the narrative just told itself."

    Read more here.

  • 'Notturno'

    Gianfranco Rosi waited three years to get the shot.

    It's a short scene in Notturno, Rosi's new documentary, which is Italy's submission for the 93rd Academy Awards in the best international feature category, as well as a best documentary feature contender. A woman from the Yazidi community of Kurdistan scrolls through audio messages on her phone. "When you hear this, answer me right away or ISIS will be listening." Messages from her daughter, kidnapped by ISIS.

    Rosi met the husband of the kidnapped woman when he first went to Iraq to begin work on Notturno, which looks at the devastation wrought by terrorists — as well as local dictators and foreign armies —across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kurdistan. The man showed the Italian director the cellphone with the voice messages but didn't want to be interviewed on camera.

    "So I had this phone but I didn't know how I could use it for my story," Rosi explains. "Every time over the next three years when I was in Iraq, I went back to see him. Five, six, ten times."

    Finally, when he was finishing Notturno, Rosi went back a final time. The husband still didn't want to be interviewed, but he gave the Italian director the phone and the number of the girl's mother, who had escaped and now lives in Germany.

    "I met her. We spoke from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon," Rosi recalls. "At the end of the day, I was ready to go, without having shot anything. But she said, 'Aren't you here to make a documentary? You have the messages of my daughter on the cell phone. I want to hear my daughter.'"

    Read more here,

  • 'The Painter and the Thief'

    As hooks go, The Painter and the Thief has a great one: The Oscar-shortlisted documentary, by 31-year-old Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree, follows a friendship between a Czech painter and the tattooed gangster who stole two of her most valuable works from an Oslo art gallery. What begins as a caper with a twist, however, soon reveals itself to be a much deeper rumination on things like friendship, self-destructiveness and the artistic impulse.

    "I read about the robbery from newspapers in Norway," explains Ree via a Zoom call from his home in Oslo, where he's seated beside a sun-mimicking lamp. (Winter nights in Norway are 18 hours long.) Ree introduced himself to the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, who'd recently moved to Oslo, and convinced her to let him start following her for what he thought would be a short film.

    What he didn't know was that Kysilkova, 38, had introduced herself to the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, 41, at a court appearance; what's more, she captured audio of their first encounter. In the conversation, Nordland claims to have no memory as to what became of her missing paintings, having committed the crime in a drug-induced stupor. He took them, he tells her, "because they were beautiful." Naturally drawn to dark subjects, Kysilkova asks if Nordland would consider posing for her. He very apprehensively agrees.

    After several sessions, Nordland begins to let his guard down and eventually allows Ree to film them. And so the camera was there to capture the moment Nordland's portrait — a photorealistic painting of him dipping his fingers into a wine glass — is unveiled to him, resulting in a shattering emotional response. "Seeing his reaction was just beyond anything we could have hoped for or predicted," says Ree. "We then decided we needed to follow these people for many years."

    In the end, Ree would follow his two subjects for three years, from 2015 through 2017, during which their stories would take more twists than a scripted drama. Eight months into the shoot, Nordland, sickly thin and consumed by a debilitating heroin addiction, gets into a near-fatal car wreck. "I was devastated and shocked," Ree remembers. "We did not know if he would live or die. He broke 16 bones in his body and his spleen broke up. It was just pure luck that he survived that accident."

    Read more here.

  • '76 Days'

    With the help of covert reporters on the ground in China and direction from documentary filmmakers Hao Wu and Jean Tsien in New York, the team behind 76 Days was able to bring the bravery of frontline workers and the painful images of the impact of the novel coronavirus to a global audience.

    To gain access to the highly restricted Wuhan hospitals during lockdown, two anonymous local reporters — who are also credited as co-directors on the film — used their press credentials to bypass security and shoot footage inside four different hospitals, director Hao Wu says.

    But after the reporters got into the hospitals in Wuhan, the people in charge didn’t have enough time or energy to police what they could or couldn’t record. "The filmmakers pretty much roamed freely in the hospitals," Wu said, adding that hospital staff may have even welcomed the press in order to gain more visibility into their dire circumstances and attract donations of PPE during the shortage.

    The filmmakers in China and the U.S. didn’t meet in person while making the documentary but stayed in touch via the internet. The reporters uploaded their footage to a cloud service, and the team in New York was able to access it there. Due to the challenges of filming independently, the co-directors were given a lot of freedom with the style of the film. "Most of the time, they have to make snap decisions on the ground because things change so fast," said Wu, "and whatever characters who we determine might be key characters, the next day [they] might be transferred or even passed away."

    Read more here. 

  • 'Time'

    Garrett Bradley's Time follows Fox Rich as she fights for the release of her husband, Rob, while he serves a 60-year sentence for a bank robbery.

    What was the hardest thing about making your film?

    BRADLEY I mean, gosh, you know, every part of it was hard. (Laughs.) Every part of making a film is difficult because there is a lot of responsibility in working with people's lives — working with real, living people, who are actively living the life that you are documenting. It wasn't so much difficult, but it was something that I had to constantly remind myself of, to center myself around. The most literal obstacle, which also presented opportunities at the end of the day, was trying to figure out how to radically rethink a film that I thought I was making, and then there's 100 hours of archive [footage], and now I'm going to be making something else.

    Obviously, in 2020 we haven't had the benefit of doing live, in-person Q&As. But basically, the one festival that we were able to go to was Sundance, where we premiered, and there were sometimes questions in the audience like, "Why didn't you focus on the case itself?" Or the crime itself. And I find those to be really interesting questions because they kind of reveal to me part of the problem. When we're talking about incarceration, the very mention of it is not to build a case for innocence; it's to actually try to evaluate the effects that this has on people and to try to question the system from that point of view. Is it worth 21 years of not having a father, and what are the effects that that has on Black and brown families? And what is the systematic separation over long periods of time of Black and brown families, how does that affect us generationally?

    I would say, as filmmakers, the way in which we articulate these stories is also something that is important. I'm really invested in this idea of the form and the content being so embedded with one another that you can't separate the two, that the form isn't just there to facilitate something — it is in and of itself the very content.

    Read more here.

  • 'The Truffle Hunters'

    The opening scene of The Truffle Hunters, the new documentary from directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, could have been from footage shot in the last century.

    Or the century before that.

    A lone man and his dogs struggle up a steep hillside. In a long shot — so still it looks like a watercolor — all we see are man, dogs and woods. The hills are in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. The man and the dogs are scavenging for the white Alba truffles counted among the most prized, and most expensive, of gastronomic delicacies.

    Over the next hour and a half, Dweck and Kershaw draw us into the strange, secretive and often poignantly sad world of truffle hunters, the old men (they are all old, they are all men) who have found their meaning of life in the pursuit of this elusive white gold. And, like the dogs sliding down the muddy hillside in that opening scene, who see their world slowly slipping away.

    The Truffle Hunters premiered at Sundance last year, where Sony Pictures Classics quickly snatched it up in a reported $1.5 million deal. The studio specialty label is pushing hard to get the film an Oscar nomination this year for best documentary feature.

    The two American directors, who collaborated on 2018's The Last Race — another documentary about a vanishing world, that of small-town stock car racing on Long Island — stumbled across the idea for Truffle Hunters while on (separate) vacations in the Piedmont region.

    "It turned out we had been to the exact same village, maybe about a week apart," says Dweck, "and we both noticed the same thing: that this community was like a fairy tale out of time. People weren't using iPhones, they weren't using computers. And they told us the same thing: 'Why are you here in August? You should be here in November, truffle hunting season.' So we asked: 'What's truffle hunting?'"

    Read more here.

  • 'Welcome to Chechnya'

    In early 2017, reports began to emerge out of Chechnya that authorities were detaining gay men and subjecting them to torture and humiliation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov immediately repudiated the claims (he maintains that there are no LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya), but the documentary evidence of abuse is impossible to deny.

    In response to the anti-gay purges, a group of queer activists in Russia began an underground operation to evacuate queer Chechens and place them in safe houses in Moscow until they could flee the country. Upon hearing about this movement, journalist and filmmaker David France (an Oscar nominee for 2012's How to Survive a Plague) flew to Russia to embed himself with the activists, capturing their life-threatening work with GoPros and camera phones. The result is Welcome to Chechnya, which landed on HBO in June following its premiere at Sundance. The film is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying — in one particularly tense sequence, France follows a team on a rescue mission to save a young lesbian whose uncle had threatened to out her, which would likely result in her murder. To protect the identities of these queer Chechens, France incorporated an A.I. digital masking technology that covered the survivors with computer-generated, hyper-realistic faces. In a dramatic moment, one such digital mask dissolves when survivor Maxim Lapunov goes public about his arrest and torture.

    France spoke to THR about his experience hiding alongside these survivors, the technical efforts to hide their identities and the international response to his documentary.

    When did you first hear of the anti-gay purges in Chechnya and the resulting effort to raise awareness about the issue?

    I first learned of the crisis in April 2017. It read like a foreign news story, you know — we've read about how the LGBTQ community is persecuted here and there. It didn't call more attention to itself, at least for me, until I read another piece in The New Yorker about what the activists are doing and what life was really like there. Even after those early news stories, nobody had come to their rescue or their defense. That's when I thought I needed to go and find out what it was like to be operating with no net whatsoever. How could it be possible that they were left to do this work alone? It felt like something that I had read in history books about Europe in the '20s and '30s, and yet it was happening today — this underground railroad hiding people who are being hunted, at great risk. I wanted to find some way to safely bring the story out to the world.

    Read more here.

    — Reporting by Seth Abramovitch, Tyler Coates, Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Rebecca Keegan, Alex Ritman, Carita Rizzo, Scott Roxborough and Tatiana Siegel