After narrowing down 144 eligible documentary features to a remarkably strong shortlist of 15 docs, the Academy’s nonfiction branch whittled down that batch to five nominees: “All That Breathes,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “Fire of Love,” “A House Made of Splinters,” and “Navalny.”
It’s a quintuplet of powerful films from five formidable helmers. It’s also a list that, as every year, is notably missing several heralded docus including Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream,” Ondi Timoner’s “Last Flight Home” and Alex Pritz’s “The Territory.” But despite the omissions, five beautifully crafted movies remain from both veteran and relatively green directors.
Interestingly all but one of the nominated films, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022, which is a testament to just how vital the fest is to the nonfiction genre. But despite four of the five nominated docus having more than 12 months of exposure, Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, is the category’s front-runner.
The high-profile documentary about U.S. artist and activist Nan Goldin and her battle to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid overdose crisis is the sixth doc feature directed by Poitras, who won an Oscar for “Citizenfour” in 2015. Poitras says the Academy nomination for “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” means that that the doc will reach more people, which could lead to a greater focus on the issues highlighted in the film.
“Documentaries tend not to make structural change, but they do have real, meaningful impact,” Poitras says. “In terms of accountability, I absolutely think that the Justice Department should bring charges against Richard Sackler. Will this film do that? No. That has to come from political forces. But if [this film leads to] more awareness or helps contribute to that, then that’s great.”
Barbara Kopple is the only director to have ever won the feature docu Oscar twice, in 1977 and 1991. Poitras has a good shot at following in her footsteps. Not only did critics adore “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” the film made history when it became the second documentary to take the top prize at Venice. The prestigious exposure in addition to a sizable campaign budget provided by Neon and HBO, make the docu’s chances for Oscar glory strong.
Giving Poitras a run for her money is Daniel Roher’s “Navalny.” About Russian dissident and one-time presidential candidate Alexei Navalny, the CNN Films doc is a fly-on-the-wall account of the rousing populist who was once a presidential candidate and posed such a threat to Putin that he was poisoned in a botched assassination plot ordered by the Kremlin in 2020. Navalny was detained in January 2021 and is serving a nine-year sentence. He has spent much of his sentence in solitary confinement. While Roher, who last directed “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” doesn’t believe his doc will get Navalny out of prison, he does think the extra spotlight the Academy Award nomination has put on the film will help the Russian dissident’s chances of survival.
“I like to call it the pain-in-the-ass index,” says Roher. “Is it a greater pain in the ass for the regime to murder him or to let him languish in prison? I think that the more we keep Navalny’s name in the conversation and the global consciousness, the more the needle will be oriented towards keeping him alive in prison.”
Academy voters tend to like docs that can make a difference. Politically minded films including “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), “The Cove” (2009) and “Icarus” (2017) all garnered Oscars.
Like “Navalny,” Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “A House Made of Splinters” is a highly topical documentary. A co-production involving Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Ukraine, “A House Made of Splinters” follows three children awaiting their fate in a temporary shelter in war-torn Eastern Ukraine. The doc won a director prize for Lereng Wilmont at Sundance. It also clinched the top prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, where it took home the Golden Alexander Award. But despite having been an international film festival darling, Lereng Wilmont’s latest has not been widely seen in the U.S. Earlier this month POV acquired the film, which will have its broadcast premiere on pub-caster PBS as part of POV’s 36th season starting in the summer.
“A nomination like this, it’s overwhelming the attention it brings to not only [the doc] but the situation [in Ukraine] and I’m so happy about that,” Wilmont says.
“A House Made of Splinters” isn’t the only foreign film in the category. Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” is an India-U.S.-U.K. production about two brothers based in Delhi who run a bird hospital dedicated to rescuing injured black kites. The film recently garnered four IDA kudos including the top prize for feature.
There’s no denying that Sen’s film is this year’s sleeper hit. After winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, the docu went on to win the Golden Eye Award for documentary at Cannes. Soon after, HBO acquired the movie. Despite getting picked up five months after premiering at Sundance, Sen, who lives in India, says he never worried about the film’s future.
“This is not a world that I have inhabited before,” Sen says. “I don’t live in this country. I’ve never shown a film at Sundance before last year, and I never honestly had a film with a big distributor before. So, while there was a tinge of nervousness at Sundance, I had confidence in what the [sales] team around me was doing.”
Since finding a home at HBO, “All That Breathes” has gone on to garner numerous kudos including a Gotham award and plenty of nominations from orgs including the BAFTAs and the DGA.
The nomination for “All That Breathes” and “A House Made of Splinters” is proof of just how international the documentary branch has become. Since 2016, the doc branch has expanded to represent 52 countries, which led it to becoming the most geo-diverse of the Academy’s 17 branches. The addition of more internationally based filmmakers into the branch has, in the past two years, led to more foreign docs such as “A House Made of Splinters,” “All That Breathes, and last year’s “Flee” and “Writing With Fire” becoming Oscar nominees.
Like “All That Breathes,” it’s hard to take your eyes off Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love.” Narrated by Miranda July, the docu centers on French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who sought to understand the magic of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded. Dosa was able to use that footage (more than 200 hours of it, with- out any sound) to craft a narrative that is, as she puts it, “a love triangle story, a story about these two humans who also have a love relationship with a volcano.”
After premiering at Sundance 2022, Dosa’s “Fire of Love” instantly became a critical darling. National Geographic acquired the docu after an intense bidding war. The doc has gone on to garner plenty of hardware from festivals around the world as well as two Intl. Documentary Assn. Awards for cinematography and writing.
While money and brand recognition are key factors in the race for Oscar gold, each film in this year’s race is premium content created by skillful artists making it anyone’s guess who will win.
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