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Over the years, the Oscar for best documentary feature has provided the Academy Awards with some of the ceremony’s most contentious and divisive moments: In 1975, when the Vietnam War doc Hearts and Minds claimed the prize, producer Bert Schneider read a letter of thanks from the Viet Cong, so incensing hosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra that they took it upon themselves later in the broadcast to apologize “for any political references.” In 2003, while accepting his Oscar for the anti-gun doc Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore was greeted with both cheers and boos when he cried “Shame on you, Mr. Bush” for launching the war in Iraq.
In the past couple of years, as Academy membership has grown larger and more diverse, the feature documentary results have been a lot more mellow, with crowd-pleasing choices — like the 2021 concert film Summer of Soul and the 2020 nature doc My Octopus Teacher — prevailing. This suggested to Oscar handicappers that if the race has a favorite, it must be whichever film appears to be the most likable and accessible of the contenders.
But this year, that rule of thumb has been tossed aside. That’s because, in a competition crowded with quality docs, some of the most audience-friendly movies, somewhat inexplicably, didn’t make the cut. Ryan White’s Good Night Oppy, which imaginatively re-created the life of two Mars rovers, won the top prize at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards but was left off the Academy’s shortlist of 15 films, from which the five nominees were chosen. Two well-regarded music docs — Brett Morgen’s celebration of David Bowie, Moonage Daydream, and Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song — made the shortlist but didn’t secure nominations.
The five nominees that remain in consideration all come armed with plenty of prizes and critics’ endorsements. They tackle serious issues, feature quietly heroic protagonists and are not without their moments of triumph, some bittersweet. But not one of them is exactly warm and cuddly. And that makes predicting which might exert the broadest appeal among the Academy’s far-flung membership more difficult.
Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, which focuses on the lives of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, is both an account of scientific exploration and a love story. The Nat Geo/Neon entry displays some of the same nail- biting man-against-nature suspense that earned the rock-climbing doc Free Solo, another Nat Geo production, an Oscar in 2019. It reportedly has left some audiences misty-eyed. And it just won the Directors Guild’s best doc trophy, which raises its profile.
While Fire of Love roams around the world, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes zeroes in on a dingy basement in Delhi, India, where brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad have established a bird rescue to treat and care for the hundreds of black kites that fall from the polluted sky. They live in what quite literally could be considered an urban jungle, where animal species, from the magisterial kites to scurrying rats, have had to adjust to the man-made environment. The film earned documentary honors at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, having earlier won the world documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, where HBO Documentary Films, a longtime player in the Oscar game, picked up worldwide TV rights.
HBO Docs also acquired rights to Participant’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which was distributed theatrically by Neon. Arguably the most ambitious of this year’s nominees, it centers on photographer Nan Goldin in her campaign to have museums around the world remove the Sackler family name from their walls because of the role the Sacklers’ company Purdue Pharma played in promoting OxyContin, triggering an epidemic of opioid addiction. But beyond the subject of addiction, it also takes unflinching looks at suicide, domestic abuse and the AIDS crisis. It’s definitely a critics’ favorite, having collected kudos from both New York and Los Angeles film critics groups. And in its director, Laura Poitras, it has a previously minted Oscar winner: She earned that prize for 2014’s Citizenfour — although that factor could be a mixed blessing given that the documentary category rarely opts for repeat winners.
This year, if the Academy is looking to make a statement — as it has done in the past with movies like Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth — All the Beauty isn’t the only option.
The most modest of this year’s crop, Giant Pictures’ A House Made of Splinters, is set in a shelter for abandoned children in the city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine. Debuting at the 2022 edition of Sundance, where its helmer, Simon Lereng Wilmot, won directing laurels, it was filmed before the Russian invasion. But an added layer of sadness lies over the film, because as difficult as the lives of the kids it depicts are, they now might be worse off, with that area of the Donbas region under intense fighting.
Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who has been imprisoned since January 2021, is the subject of CNN Films’ Navalny, which traces his 2020 poisoning, his recovery in Germany and decision to return to Russia, where he was immediately arrested. The film, directed by Daniel Roher, picked up an audience award at Sundance, was awarded a BAFTA as best documentary and received the PGA’s top doc award. And if the Academy is in the mood for a real-life thriller — as it was when it favored Citizenfour — Navalny fits that bill, even if, like the rest of this year’s serious-minded nominees, it isn’t exactly a feel-good film.
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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