In Focus: Assessing the Oscar feature documentary finalists

A scene from "American Factory."
A scene from "American Factory."Netflix

There may have been some surprises among this year’s Academy Award nominees, but the lack of diversity is not one of them. Year after year it has been the same, and those who say that non-white and female filmmakers will win Oscars when they make good movies should start seeing more good movies. The problem is institutional and bodes ill for an industry that pretends to artistry and relevance.

But the feature documentary category continues to be the exception. Four of the five nominees are directed or co-directed by women. Four are by Brazilian, Syrian, or North Macedonian filmmakers. They all examine urgent issues — workers’ rights, corporate power, the erosion of democracy, and environmental disaster — not to be found in the films nominated for best picture.


Come to think of it, when will the Academy start considering documentaries for that category? The nominees listed below are some of the best pictures I saw all last year.

American Factory The law of unintended consequences plays a role in Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s look at an economic miracle that wasn’t. After the 2008 crash, a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, shut down, leaving thousands jobless. Then a seeming savior arrived, in the form of a Chinese glass manufacturing company ready to hire 2,000 workers. But a clash of cultures and differing notions about labor and ownership complicated the partnership.

Bognar and Reichert follow this story as it unfolds and gain access to all sides of the conflict. Workers grumble about low pay, poor treatment, and unsafe conditions. Union representatives try to organize them. Some workers object to the union interference, and the company pressures those threatening to strike. Meanwhile the Chinese owners complain about the American employees’ indolence, and a visit to one of their factories in China shows the kind of alarmingly servile regimentation they expect. Absorbing and enlightening, the film demonstrates that despite differences China and the United States have at least one value in common — the primacy of profits over people.


“American Factory” can be seen on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/81090071.

A scene from "The Cave."
A scene from "The Cave."

The Cave One of the two nominees that offer an unsparing, firsthand look at the ongoing, catastrophic civil war in Syria, Feras Fayyad (nominated for a best documentary Oscar in 2018, for “Last Men in Aleppo”) focuses on the beleaguered hospital of the title, one of the last still operating in an outlying neighborhood of Damascus. Located underground to escape bombardments from Syrian government forces and their Russian allies, the hospital treats an endless stream of the wounded despite dwindling medical supplies and appalling conditions.

The enemy closes in, the death toll mounts, and bleeding children lie in the corridors. The heroic staff, headed by a woman who even here must deal with male chauvinists, perseveres despite the hopelessness of their situation — until they confront a war crime that tests their resolve.

“The Cave” can be seen on the National Geographic channel beginning on Jan. 25 at 9 p.m.

Go to www.nationalgeographic.com/films/the-cave/#/.

A scene from "The Edge of Democracy."
A scene from "The Edge of Democracy."Netflix (custom credit)/Netflix

The Edge of Democracy Petra Costa, director of this account of Brazil’s recent foiled attempt at establishing a genuinely democratic government, has a longstanding personal connection to the story. Her parents fought against the military dictatorship, starting in the 1960s. After years of struggle the junta was overthrown and genuine elections took place in the 1980s.


But after a complex series of events that Costa elucidates with indignation and sadness the heroes of the democratic dream faltered and allowed the financial elites to regain power. In 2018 the right-wing demagogue Jair Bolsonaro was elected president.

Brazil’s democracy has been undermined while the United States system has endured for over two centuries. But as Costa warns in her voice-over narration, “Fragile democracies have an advantage over solid ones: They know when they are over.”

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has denounced Costa’s film as “fiction.” “Am I going to waste time with crap like that?” he told reporters after the film’s Oscar nomination was announced. What better recommendation could there be?

“The Edge of Democracy” can be seen on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/80190535.

Waad Al-Kateab in "For Sama."
Waad Al-Kateab in "For Sama."

For Sama Like “The Cave,” Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s film (produced by WGBH’s “Frontline” series) offers an intense record of the hardship endured during the Syrian conflict but from a deeply personal point of view.

Al-Kateab, a journalist, had been among the first to demonstrate in Aleppo against the Assad regime. Years later, pregnant with a daughter, Sama, she and her husband, one of the last doctors in the city, decide to remain in the besieged rebel stronghold until the end. But every day she sees children taken to her husband’s hospital who are grievously wounded or dying or mourning the loss of parents and she wonders if her daughter will end up the same way.


She decides to film a video diary of her experience to explain to Sama why she and her husband made this choice — if they survive. As in “The Cave,” the heartbreaking images can be hard to watch. But though doom seems inevitable Al-Kateab and her husband are determined to see the tragedy through to the end to help those who are suffering and record it all for the world to see.

“For Sama” can be streamed on the “Frontline” website.

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/for-sama.

A scene from "Honeyland."
A scene from "Honeyland."Ljubomir Stefanov/Neon

Honeyland Like a primeval version of “American Factory,” Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s study of the declining fortunes of a beekeeper in a remote corner of North Macedonia is an allegory about capitalism gone wrong. Hatidze lives alone in a hovel with her ancient, invalid mother. She makes a living tending bees and selling her honey in the marketplace in the city. An itinerant family with a caravan of vehicles and livestock moves in next door. Hatidze befriends them and teaches the children the old-fashioned, ecologically sound ways of caring for bees.

But the father is tempted by a speculator who offers him money to exploit the bees and ignore traditional methods. The newcomer’s large family lives on the brink of poverty; and he needs the money to survive, so he goes ahead with his folly, heedless of the ruinous cost.

“Honeyland,” which was also nominated for best international feature, impresses with its breathtaking natural vistas, gritty images of an obscure and threatened community, and intimate access to obscure but fascinating lives. With skill and tenacity, the filmmakers shaped 400 hours of footage taken over the course of three years into a tragic fable of our times.


“Honeyland” can be seen on DVD, on digital HD, or on VOD.

Go to www.honeylandfilm.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.