Oscars: The Season of the Documentary

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Courtesy Photos

As a lover of documentaries who also works with the Savannah Film Festival each year to program a panel of top docs at that fest, I make a point of seeing as many new doc features as possible. And, in this most unusual Oscar season, I believe a strong argument can be made that the quantity of outstanding doc features actually exceeds the quantity outstanding narrative features, particularly as the release dates of narrative features continue to be pushed back and out of the current race.

From where I stand, the doc currently in the pole position is Icarus Oscar winner Bryan Fogel's The Dissident, a doc/thriller-hybrid about the life and murder of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, featuring exclusive cooperation from key players who knew the subject (including his widow and a blogger in exile who was working with him at the time of his death) and previously unheard audio implicating the House of Saud (courtesy of Turkish intelligence services). Despite a strong reception at Sundance from audiences, as well as everyone from Hillary Clinton to Alec Baldwin, distributors with Saudi connections ran in the opposite direction from the film — to the benefit of Briarcliff, Tom Ortenberg's new company, which stepped in and is making The Dissident its first major release, which feels appropriate since the film plays like Spotlight, which Ortenberg's previous company, Open Road, guided to the best picture Oscar.

The Dissident's greatest vulnerability is that there is also another well done Khashoggi-centric doc, Rick Rowley's Kingdom of Silence (Showtime), which was produced by doc titan Alex Gibney.

Speaking of Gibney, he, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger teamed up to direct another disturbing and powerful doc about a different scandal that many have tried to sweep under the rug: the Trump Administration's bungled response to COVID-19. Totally Under Control, which employed specially-devised camera equipment to interview key players throughout the pandemic, dropped on Apple TV+, iTunes, Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and other on-demand digital services on Oct. 13 and will head to Hulu on Oct. 20, aiming to catch people ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Another interesting film dealing with the same subject matter, albeit with more VFX and less narration, is Oscar nominee Adam Benzine's The Curve, which will be released on YouTube before Americans head to the polls.

Netflix, the distributor of two of the last three winners of the best documentary feature Oscar, Icarus and American Factory, returns to serious contention this year with two titles, in particular: James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham's Crip Camp, a film about the activists who emerged from a 1970s summer camp for children with disabilities, which, like American Factory, hails from the Obamas' production company Higher Ground; and Dick Johnson Is Dead, from director Kirsten Johnson (who was surprisingly snubbed for 2016's Cameraperson), about she and her elderly father confronting the inevitably of his death. Expect both to receive vigorous awards pushes.

In the year of George Floyd and nationwide #BlackLivesMatter protests, there are also numerous films that speak — directly or indirectly — to the zeitgeist, as many eventual Oscar winners do. The best of the lot may well be Garrett Bradley's Time (Amazon), which unspools in black-and-white and powerfully illustrates the impact of disproportionately harsh prison sentencing for Black people by focusing on one Black family over many years (and, for my money, features one of the most moving scenes of the year, which is reminiscent of a classic scene in best picture Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives). Back in January, Bradley won Sundance's best director of a doc prize, making her its first black female recipient.

The prison system is also under the microscope in Tommy Oliver's 40 Years A Prisoner (HBO), the story of a Black activist's fight to exonerate his parents, who have been incarcerated since a 1978 incident involving their revolutionary group MOVE ended with the death of a police officer.

The broader American civil rights movement is examined in several other films. Dawn Porter's John Lewis: Good Trouble (Magnolia/Participant) offers a stirring tribute to the titular activist-turned-congressman who succumbed to cancer in July. (It has aired repeatedly on CNN ever since.) Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI (IFC) lays bare despicable tactics used by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to try to derail the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. back in the Sixties. Oge Egbuonu's feature directorial debut (In)visible Portraits (still seeking U.S. distribution) examines the Black female experience in America. And Sonia Lowman's Black Boys (still seeking U.S. distribution) offers a white filmmaker's portrait of Black boys through the prism of sports.

Naturally, Pres. Donald Trump and the 2020 presidential election are the focus of some of this year's crop of docs. All In: The Fight for Democracy (Amazon), from Lisa Cortes and Oscar nominee Liz Garbus, profiles America's long history of voter suppression and how activists like Stacey Abrams are working to combat it this cycle. And the aforementioned Dawn Porter has another standout in The Way I See It (Focus), which looks at the career of Reagan and Obama's apolitical White House photographer Pete Souza and how he has become politically activated by the Trump era. (The film, which was produced by Free Solo Oscar winner Evan Hayes, premieres commercial-free on MSNBC on Oct. 16.)

Also about 2020, albeit less directly, is Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss' Boys State, the winner of Sundance's Grand Jury prize for docs, which troublingly shows how politically-interested teens at a mock government program now emulate Trump-era tactics and obfuscation. American Selfie (MTV), a film from the accomplished filmmaker and Speaker of the House's daughter Alexandra Pelosi, captures the narcissistic attitudes of Americans during the run-up to and onset of the pandemic. And Jeff Orlowski's The Social Dilemma, another Netflix title, breaks down how people have become addicted to social media at a time when it is increasingly coopted by peddlers of disinformation.

A number of films directly dealing with civil liberties at home and abroad. The Fight (Magnolia/Topic Studios), from Weiner directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, as well as Eli Depres, takes viewers inside the ACLU as it tackles four important cases. David France, who previously earned an Oscar nom for the LGBTQ-themed How to Survive a Plague, is behind Welcome to Chechnya (HBO), a haunting look at LGBTQ activists fighting persecution in the eponymous closed Russian republic. And both Sam Feder's Disclosure (Netflix) and Sharon Liese's Transhood (HBO) depict the experience of transgender people, the former chronicling their depictions on screen dating back the silent era and the latter focusing on developments in the life of four trans kids over five years.

Meanwhile, #MeToo is front-and-center in On the Record (HBO Max), from Oscar nominees Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, in which women who survived sexual assault by music moguls Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid share their stories on camera for the first time; and in Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's Athlete A (Netflix), which features testimonies from numerous survivors of an abusive trainer of U.S. Olympics competitors who was long protected by the USA Gymnastics organization.

Climate change, another hot-button issue, is dealt with in Nathan Grossman's I Am Greta (Hulu), which features amazing behind-the-scenes access to Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, up to and including showing her on a rickety boat as she traveled to the United Nations to give a landmark speech while simultaneously struggling with her exploding public profile. Additionally, Oscar winner Ron Howard's Rebuilding Paradise (NatGeo) offers a nightmarish look at a fire-filled future in which society fails to deal with climate change, while Josh Tickell and Rebecca Tickell's Kiss the Ground (Netflix) presents a more hopeful picture — narrated by Woody Harrelson — of how we might solve the climate crisis by focusing on regenerative agriculture.

Corruption, a favorite subject of the Academy when it comes to docs, is masterfully laid bare in Alexander Nanau's Collective (Magnolia/Participant), which shows how fearless journalists and public servants in Romania took on a corrupt medical industry that miserably failed citizens hospitalized after a terrible fire — 27 died immediately, but 37 more died unnecessarily in the ensuing weeks. (It was announced on Oct. 13 as Romania's entry into the international feature Oscar race, as well.) Ryan White's Assassins (Greenwich) examines the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam. And Garin Hovannisian's I Am Not Alone (still seeking U.S. distribution), which chronicles the incredible story of the recent Armenian revolution, is absolutely outstanding — stranger than fiction and tremendously inspiring.

International affairs are also at the center of Dror Moreh's The Human Factor from Dror Moreh, whose previous Oscar-nominated film The Gatekeepers looked at the Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes of the leaders of at Israel's intelligence service, and whose new film does the same through the eyes of the American negotiators who have tried but failed to broker a last peace in the Middle East. Another Oscar nominee, Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea), returns to contention for film fest favorite Notturno (still seeking U.S. distribution), which depicts the challenges of everyday life in present-day Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon.

Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple's Desert One (Greenwich) looks back at Operation Eagle Claw, a daring attempt to rescue of 52 Americans held hostage by Iran 40 years ago during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The artist Ai Weiwei's Vivos (still seeking U.S. distribution) investigates the disappearance of 43 students from Mexico in 2014. And Jiayan Shi's Finding Yingying (MTV) follows the two-year search for a 26-year-old visiting scholar from a small city in southern China who vanished from the Illinois campus where she was studying.

Plus, in Red Penguins (Universal), Gabe Polsky's mindblowing follow-up to his outstanding 2014 film fest favorite Red Army, we see the highs and lows encountered by American entrepreneurs in lawless Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union as they sought to invest in Russia's premier hockey team.

And then there are the biopics. Evgeny Afineevsky follows his Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom with Francesco, a film about the life, work and candid views of Pope Francis — about everything from LGBTQ rights to the America/Mexico border wall  — that is the result of unprecedented access to the pontiff that was granted over the last few years, right through the onset of the pandemic. It will have its world premiere on Oct. 21 at the Rome Film Festival, where it hopes to land distribution.

Ric Burns' Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (Zeitgeist) documents a world-famous neurologist who was given a death sentence — inoperable cancer — and used his remaining time to reflect on his complicated life and the wonder of the world.

There are, as always, a plethora of wonderful music-centric docs. Daniel Roher's Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (Magnolia) centers on the Canadian singer/songwriter who is one of only two surviving members of one of the most acclaimed rock groups ever. Oscar nominee Frank Marshall's The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO) tells the story of the three brothers behind another beloved band. And Lana Wilson's Miss Americana (Netflix) captures the incredible songwriting process of hit machine Taylor Swift, including the composition of "Only the Young," which itself will be a formidable contender for the best original song Oscar.

Other showbiz figures at the center of well-regarded docs include the late martial arts legend Bruce Lee, whose story is told by Bao Nguyen in Be Water (ESPN) using great archival footage and new interviews with people who knew him; John Belushi, the comedy legend whose rise and demise is addressed in R.J. Cutler's Belushi (Showtime); and legendary Puerto Rican astrologer and psychic Walter Mercado, who is the subject of Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Netflix) from directors Cristina Costantini (co-director of 2018's excellent Science Fair) and Kareem Tabsch.

Finally, there are a bunch of one-offs that defy categorization of any sort, and might best be described as curiosities. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's The Truffle Hunters (Sony Classics) nonjudgmentally observes the eccentric and sometimes cut-throat pursuers of white truffles in the forests of Italy. Keith Maitland's Dear Mr. Brody (still seeking U.S. distribution) unearths letters from the 1960s that were sent to a whacked-out rich hippie who had promised to give away millions to those in need. Robert Beemer's The Mindfulness Movement (Abramorama) explains the appeal of achieving a mental state championed by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Jewel. And Maite Alberdi's Spanish-language The Mole Agent (Cinereach) blends dramatic techniques with real situations to paint a funny, sad and poignant portait of old age and loneliness in Chile, deploying an old man to go "undercover" as a resident in a nursing home to investigate patient abuse. It is one of my favorite movies of the year.