Any Oscar list of best documentary feature nominees for last year that does not include Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” is essentially flawed.
That said, those nominated reflect this year’s Oscars inclusiveness, with such such firsts as seven nominations for Black actors and 70 women receiving a total of 76 nominations.
Among those women is Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberti, whose “The Mole Agent” takes on another underserved demographic — the elderly. The title sleuth is a delightful 83-year-old widower enlisted by a private detective to go undercover in a rest home to find out if a client’s mother is being mistreated.
The mole doesn’t find much wrong with the facility — a somewhat dirty bathroom and thefts committed by a resident suffering from dementia. Perhaps that is because the documentary crew following him everywhere might have blown his cover. It also seems like some of the narrative is staged or manipulated.
But the film’s poignancy, humor, and bittersweet tone underscore how the suffering being investigated is not institutional but existential: All the residents are lonely and saddened by what they have lost. That includes their own negligent families. As the mole agent notes, if the client wanted to find out what was happening with her mother maybe she should have looked into it herself.
Available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Netflix, YouTube, and other platforms.
Another group seeking inclusion is featured in Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Today’s progress in equal rights and access for the disabled can be traced back to Camp Jened, a summer retreat “for the handicapped” located in the Catskills, in upstate New York, not far from the site of the Woodstock music festival. The camp thrived during the ’60s and ’70s; and the counterculture made an impact there, as hippie-ish counselors encouraged not just the usual summer-camp activities — campfires, sports, and basket-weaving — but also sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and political awareness..
When alumni passed from the freedom and acceptance of the camp back into the restrictions and ostracism of the world outside, some decided that it was time for change. Alumna Judy Heumann helped found the organization Disabled in Action (DIA) in 1970. Other camp mates joined in the movement and their activism helped pass the Rehabilitation Act in 1973.
Stocked with fascinating vintage footage, ranging from the hilarious to the heart-rending, and enlivened by a soundtrack of period rock hits, “Crip Camp” offers rare insight into a movement while telling a moving, revelatory story.
Available on Netflix.
One of my favorite documentaries of 2020 was Victor Kossakovsky’s “Gunda,” a spare black-and-white tale of farm animals, in which the human presence is peripheral, though baleful. Hardly a word is uttered, and anthropomorphism is minimal.
That can’t be said for Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s “My Octopus Teacher,” in which the subject is a man’s year-long relationship — a love affair really — with a cephalopod. Nature filmmaker Craig Foster found himself burnt-out and depressed after years of work. Diving in the cold water off the Cape of Good Hope, near his home in South Africa, proved restorative. There he observed the fascinating sea life and was drawn to the title creature, which he followed for a year.
Slowly Foster gained the creature’s trust and affection and could watch her go about her business, hunting for food and escaping predators. He is astonished by her intelligence and affection — first she touches his hand with a tentative tentacle, and later she nestles on his chest. “There is no greater feeling on earth,” he says. “The boundaries between her and I seem to dissolve.” Perhaps at this point anthropomorphism is elevated into empathy.
Available on Netflix.
The title of Garrett Bradley’s “Time” refers to time served in prison, but also the passage of time itself, measured here by an absence.
In 1997 Black newlyweds Fox Rich and Rob G. Rich saw their business collapse when an associate double-crossed them. Desperate, they robbed a bank and were caught, tried, and sentenced. Fox served 3½ years; Rob got 60.
Once released, Fox faced three challenges: raising their children, trying to get her husband freed, and campaigning to reform a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes Black offenders and has broken up countless families. That was her life for 21 years.
During this time Fox shot black-and-white video diaries of the family and sent them to her husband. Bradley uses this footage — in which years pass, changes happen, the children grow up, and Fox grows older — and combines it with present-day scenes as Fox continues her activism, determined that someday Rob will return home.
Available on Amazon Prime.
Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s “Collective” presents a microcosm of what happens when a government is broken and betrays its people.
On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in a crowded Bucharest nightclub called Collectiv. It spread with terrifying speed, as can be seen in a cellphone video taken there.
Twenty-seven died on the scene and many were injured. Public outrage grew when it was learned that safety laws had been violated and officials bribed. Thousands demonstrated, and the prime minister and other officials resigned.
But the corruption ran deep. Though their facilities were overwhelmed, the authorities refused to transport victims to other countries, claiming that their care was “as good as in Germany.” Within days many died in agony from massive infections.
Cătălin Tolontan, an investigative journalist for the unlikely publication Sports Gazette, is the hero of the story. He turns his staff into a team like that in “Spotlight” (2015) or “All the President’s Men” (1976) and they stake out factories and the homes of moguls and officials and uncover a network of greed and brazen malfeasance. The evidence they turn up is horrifying, such as a video of a burn victim whose wounds are crawling with maggots.
A taut detective story and a devastating look at a system gone wrong, “Collective” is also a celebration of the power of the news media at its best. It is one of only two films nominated for both best documentary feature and best international feature film (the other was “Honeyland,” last year). Maybe soon the Academy can take the next big step toward artistic inclusivity and include a documentary among the nominees for best picture.
“Collective” is available on DVD and on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.