In an oddly unpredictable awards season, maybe it’s a comfort that the nominees for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards more or less represent business as usual. For a few years now, the awards have offered up a good mix of their usually favored topical, relevant, and respectfully made efforts alongside the occasional genuinely adventurous, scorching, or marvelously good discovery. This year is no different.
In fact, if anything, the nominated batch of films is a little livelier than usual. There’s Yance Ford’s richly painful Strong Island, a personal investigation into the killing of the director’s brother and the cultural suppositions that overdetermined the outcome of the case; French luminary Agnès Varda’s Faces Places, a moving collaboration with the too-hip flypost photographer and artist JR, which celebrates the lives of working people; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a chronicle of the family-run Chinatown bank that incongruously became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime lending crisis; Icarus, Bryan Fogel’s narcissistic and ethically baffling but hyper-watchable study of Grigory Rodchenkov and state-sanctioned doping efforts in Russia; and Last Men in Aleppo, Firas Fayyad’s detailed, rigorous study of Syria’s White Helmets rescue workers.
I’m rooting for a few of these—Strong Island, Faces Places, and Last Men in Aleppo in particular—but each win would be significant in its own way. A win for Yance Ford would not only be the first of its kind for a black trans filmmaker; it’d also be another feather in the cap of Netflix, increasingly a powerhouse in this category, and an even greater triumph for documentary filmmaking that feels inward-looking, knotty, and personal. It’s a far cry from the talking-head fare we usually expect to win this award. In Strong Island, the very act of peering into someone’s face and hearing their story is an act of mercy—and it doesn’t take for granted the power of a filmmaker turning the camera back on himself. A win for Faces Places, meanwhile, would be a win for the oldest-ever Oscar nominee, to say nothing of Varda’s immeasurable importance to film history, starting with the 89-year-old’s canonical contributions to the French New Wave. If Steve James finally won for Abacus, it wouldn’t make up for the academy snubbing Hoop Dreams in 1995 or The Interrupters, James’s 2011 study of anti-violence activists in modern Chicago—but sure, it’d be a start. Last Men in Aleppo could win not only for being the kind of war journalism the Oscars stereotypically love but also for being an especially precise, worthy example of the form. If it won, it would seem on the surface like more of the academy’s same old, but the film is better than that. Icarus, the biggest headline-maker of the group and another potential win for Netflix, would definitely be more of the same old, but it, too, is more interesting than the norm.
Rooting for anyone to win Best Documentary, though, can be a pain. This award can be a little hard to pin down. It can feel, to its detriment, like an award premised more on relevance than on craft, though every year it’s still possible to talk oneself into believing that the best documentary might actually win. (Sometimes, as with last year’s O.J.: Made in America, it really happens.) Strangely, like most of the rest of the public, the academy can seem slow to recognize nonfiction filmmaking as outright art, rather than as glorified journalism—which is why the list of past winners sometimes reads like a stack of old headlines. When you look to the ’80s, it’s no surprise to see winners about the AIDS crisis (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, in 1990) and, relatedly, queer political triumphs and tragedies of the era (The Times of Harvey Milk). Bob Maurice’s seminal Woodstock won in 1971, less than two years after the festival; Laura Poitras’s very good Citizenfour, about the efforts of whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald to release information about the U.S. government spying on its citizens, won as the leaks from that effort were still making headline news.
Meanwhile, the infamous Scared Straight!, in which juvenile delinquents are taken to a prison to get berated and cursed at by convicts with life sentences, won in 1979, amid the same fearful era for crime that would soon catapult Ronald Reagan and others into political office. The Robert McNamara–starring The Fog of War, by Errol Morris, reevaluated Vietnam War policies—meaning, of course, mistakes—in 2003, just as America was kicking off the Iraq War; Inside Job, about the financial crisis of 2008, won in 2011, when we were still knee-deep in the fallout of that mess. Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth, Taxi to the Dark Side—these recent winners all feel like time-capsuled missives into outer space for the benefit of the aliens, stark indications of who we are in the moment, or rather, who the academy thinks we are, and what it thinks we’re thinking.
But then you’ll get a timeless phenomenon like 2006 winner March of the Penguins, or 2013’s jubilant 20 Feet from Stardom, about the unsung, black women backup singers of rock music. Sometimes the newsiness of the Best Documentary category posits the movie itself or the persona at its center—be it Al Gore or 1972 Marjoe star Marjoe Gortner, a church-tent revivalist prodigy whose devilishly charismatic preaching (and whose open confessions of swindling congregants countrywide) is impossible not to watch in awe—as the main draw. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, Marjoe happens to be an exceptional, incisively made documentary, one of the best-ever to win the award. But rare is the Best Documentary winner that seems to have won primarily because it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking (although I’m not sure many of us expect as much from the Academy Awards).
The documentary category can be hard to argue with, however, given that it has long been the most hospitable category to a diverse range of filmmakers. We say that no woman auteur won Best Director at the Academy Awards before Kathryn Bigelow did in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, but woman documentarians have been winning Oscars in their category since 1956 when Nancy Hamilton won for Helen Keller in Her Story. (The documentary Oscar is awarded to the film’s director and producers.) Two-time winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream), Brigitte Berman, Freida Lee Mock, Poitras, and others have followed suit over the years, with a good number of women producers taking the trophy, too. At last year’s Oscars, meanwhile, four of the five nominated documentaries were by black filmmakers, and the fifth was a foreign-language film from Italy, which felt like a sea change.
That kind of demographic advancement doesn’t make up for the fact that the category’s historic snubs—Shoah, Crumb, Gimme Shelter, Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, Paris Is Burning, Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, the entire oeuvre of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew’s seminal Kennedy documentaries—comprise some of the most glaring missed opportunities in Oscars history. But the nominees from recent years, and what feels like the increased presence of genuinely great films on the roster (Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in 2014 chief among them) makes me optimistic. There’s a very good chance that at this year’s ceremony on March 4, and not for the first time this decade, the Best Documentary Feature winner won’t be a forgettable letdown. That probably seems like a low bar. But for the Oscars, it’d be making history.