Compelling International Stories Make Pitch for Best Documentary Feature Oscars

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After they won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019 for their thrilling Free Solo, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin went underground—in a manner of speaking.

They tunneled into the true-life story of kids trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for their filmmaking follow up, The Rescue, a documentary that has put the married couple back in contention for an Oscar nomination.

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Free Solo posed enormous cinematic challenges—capturing every angle of climber Alex Honnold’s daring ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan rock face without aid of ropes. But if anything, The Rescue presented even greater obstacles.

“So often in documentaries you come across people with tons of footage and no story,” Vasarhelyi says. “We had a great story and no footage. Period.”

‘The Rescue’ - Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films
‘The Rescue’ - Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films

National Geographic Documentary Films

A team of amateur cave divers from Britain and Australia assembled in 2018 to try to save the stranded children—members of a youth soccer club—and their coach. But very little of the brave attempt had been documented on camera.

“The cave is pitch black. The water is muddy. No civilians were allowed to film. No civilians were allowed in the cave, except for the divers,” Vasarhelyi says. “Half a world away, and then a pandemic. And then there’s also a rights grab, where one studio owned the children’s rights and their story and then another studio owned the divers’ rights. There was every possible constraint you could imagine.”

Fifteen films earned a place on the Oscar documentary feature shortlist, but only five will go on to score Oscar nominations. In that fiercely competitive race, National Geographic boasts two contenders—The Rescue, and Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave. Heineman went inside a hospital in Queens to document the impact of Covid as it decimated the New York City area in spring 2020. He admits it was “terrifying” to enter a hospital environment just as the pandemic was exploding.

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‘The First Wave’ - Credit: Neon
‘The First Wave’ - Credit: Neon

Neon

“We knew so little about the disease. We knew so little about how it spread,” Heineman recalls of those early days of the outbreak. “Every day there was so much inspiration from the people we were filming with. And I think the importance of trying to humanize this issue, but also find those moments of love and connection that we were witnessing every day, pushed us to keep making this film.”

Heading toward the Oscar nomination announcement, two nonfiction features stand out as big favorites for recognition: Flee, and Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The pair are far and away the most honored docs of the past year.

‘Summer of Soul’ - Credit: Searchlight Pictures
‘Summer of Soul’ - Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Searchlight Pictures

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson DJ’d the Oscar ceremony last year, but as director of Summer of Soul he could find himself with a different seat at the ceremony this time.

“When making this movie, I truly didn’t have an inkling that this was going to be anything above the radar of what’s sort of normal for me,” Questlove says. “This is beyond my wildest imagination.”

The film from Disney’s Onyx Collective, Hulu and Searchlight Pictures has earned widespread acclaim for rescuing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival from unjust oblivion. In that summer long ago, Black audiences witnessed some of the most extraordinary African American musical talent ever gathered in one place: Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, and so many more. The concert series was filmed with the idea of turning it into a television special, but at the time none of the TV networks demonstrated any interest. For over half a century, the footage mostly just sat around collecting dust.

“I walked into this really just wanting to tell an accurate story… about a really beautiful moment in history that got neglected,” Questlove says. “All of a sudden, the universe is opening in ways that I could never imagine before. I’m elated right now.”

‘Flee’ - Credit: Neon
‘Flee’ - Credit: Neon

Neon

Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the Danish director of Flee, declares himself similarly stunned by the reception for his film, winner of the top prize for international documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It uses animation to recount the journey of Rasmussen’s friend, Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym used to protect his subject’s anonymity). Amin grew up as a gender non-conforming kid in Afghanistan, then fled his homeland just before Kabul fell to the Mujahideen in 1989. After a long ordeal he arrived, alone, in the small Danish village where Rasmussen lived.

“I was 15. He was 16, and he stayed in foster care with a family, because he came all by himself,” the director remembers. “We became friends. I was always curious about why he arrived, but he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Later, after Rasmussen became a documentarian, the friends discussed the possibility of Amin sharing all he had gone through to reach the West.

“I called him up and asked him again if he wanted to tell his story [through] animation. And he finally said yes, because with the animation we could make him anonymous,” Rasmussen says. “It’s traumatic experiences that are hard for him to talk about. So, he really didn’t want to make a normal film where he would then meet people in the street who would know his innermost secrets and his traumas.”

Neither of the friends anticipated the film would wind up in Oscar contention.

“I just talked to him and he said when we got started, he thought, ‘OK, if this is going to screen on local Danish TV, that’s going to be great.’ And now here we are,” Rasmussen marvels. “For both of us, it’s really a crazy ride. Neither of us expected to be where we are today.”

Internationally themed documentaries have gained traction in the Oscar race in recent years, thanks in part to the addition of more international filmmakers to the Academy’s Doc Branch, which determines the shortlist and the nominees. Last year, the Romanian film Collective earned an Oscar nod, as did The Mole Agent out of Chile (the nature film My Octopus Teacher, which won Best Documentary Feature last year, came out of South Africa).

‘Faya Dayi’ - Credit: Janus Films
‘Faya Dayi’ - Credit: Janus Films

Janus Films

Along with Flee, the international contingent with a strong shot at Oscar nominations this year includes Faya Dayi, from Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir. She returned to a village in Ethiopia where she lived as a child to make her film, a poetic documentation of the way khat, a chewable stimulant, weaves throughout the culture and economy.

“Shooting the film over these last 10 years became a way to reconnect with my childhood memories,” Beshir says, “as well as to bear witness to the stories and voices I encountered.”

Janus Films released Faya Dayi. HBO, meanwhile, is behind two international-themed contenders, Simple as Water and In the Same Breath.

The latter film, directed by Nanfu Wang, examines how both the Chinese and U.S. governments used propaganda to shape the narrative around the Covid crisis. Chinese authorities at first minimized the scale of infection and punished anyone who revealed details of the spreading illness. When the virus initially arrived in the U.S., the Trump administration also downplayed its seriousness and sidelined some government experts who warned of the looming catastrophe. Social media here also became a cesspool for pandemic conspiracy theories and false information.

“The [political] systems seemed to be the opposite—democratic versus authoritarian. But they are making the same mistakes,” Wang says. “You see that misinformation, lack of transparency exists in China. But just because there is freedom of speech in the U.S., it doesn’t mean that there is closer free access to the truth. It just means the misinformation in the U.S. also spreads freely, too.”

‘Simple as Water’ - Credit: WarnerMedia
‘Simple as Water’ - Credit: WarnerMedia

WarnerMedia

Simple as Water, directed by Megan Mylan, documents four families impacted by the civil war in Syria, including a mother and her four kids stuck in a tent city on the busy dock of a Greek port. They crossed the Mediterranean in a boat full of desperate migrants, and tragically lost their youngest boy to the unforgiving seas, one of thousands of children and adults who have died on that perilous journey.

“Everybody remembers five or six years ago in the Mediterranean the crossings—Syrians and other migrants—really intensified. At the time, I was the mother of a three-year-old,” Mylan said at a recent Q&A, explaining her motivation to make the film. “I just got pulled into morning after morning reading coverage and listening to radio. Again and again, it was photographs of parents cradling their children and helping them up onto the shore… If you make documentaries for a living and something like this takes hold of you, [you think], ‘This is probably something I should do.’”

“Ascension” - Credit: MTV Documentary Films
“Ascension” - Credit: MTV Documentary Films

MTV Documentary Films

Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s riveting exploration of modern China and its emergent class divides, is staking a strong claim to an Oscar nomination. She documented the super-rich, the highly aspirational middle class and the mass of workers streaming into cities in search of opportunities. One unforgettable sequence takes place in a factory that manufactures sex dolls.

“That one was an example of the most extreme type of exploitation. It’s like you’ve made a commodification of the human body and the commodification of this desired intimacy but can’t really buy that,” Kingdon says. “Even though it seems like it is the most [extreme] site for exploitation, the women workers seem to have a good rapport with each other, and you see them sort of tenderly caring for the dolls, in a weird way, and also caring for one another, teaching each other how to do this work.”

Film Focus: Documentary Feature is a feature in Deadline’s Oscar Best Picture issue with Lady Gaga on the cover. Click here to read the digital edition.
Film Focus: Documentary Feature is a feature in Deadline’s Oscar Best Picture issue with Lady Gaga on the cover. Click here to read the digital edition.

The 15 contenders for Oscar nominations are spread evenly between a variety of distributors: Ascension, for instance, from MTV Documentary Films, Julia from Sony Pictures Classics and CNN Films, Attica from cable network Showtime, Writing with Fire from Music Box Films, and, notably, the streaming platforms. Apple Original Films competes with two music-themed docs: Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, and The Velvet Underground.

Netflix, which has claimed the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary three of the last four years, can point to only a single contender in that category this year—Robert Greene’s Procession. The streaming juggernaut’s best shot at more Oscar doc glory this time centers on the short documentary category, where it has four films in contention.

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