Last year, the Academy Award for Best Documentary went to Summer of Soul, which chronicled the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and its epochal lineup of jazz, blues, pop, and R&B icons, from Stevie Wonder to Sly Stone to Nina Simone. In commercial terms, the film was a slam dunk, with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson picking and choosing his footage from an embarrassment of archival riches: the movie could have been an hour longer and remained enjoyable. The musical numbers spoke for themselves, articulating the conjoined sense of joy and defiance hinted at in the project’s politicized subtitle, which is …Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised. On that front, Summer of Soul was not shy about connecting the dots between the larger circumstances that birthed an event known as the “Black Woodstock” and its own anxious, millennial present tense.
There are no comparably crowd-pleasing titles in this year’s Best Documentary lineup, although there is a common denominator of subversion. Four of the five nominated films embrace the drama of individuals battling against something larger than themselves, while a fifth is a study in radical empathy in wartime. It’s an eclectic lineup with no real stylistic outlier: When it comes to aesthetics, the Academy’s documentary branch remains stubbornly conventional, notwithstanding the occasional exception like 2019’s wonderful Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Happily, there’s no bland elephant—or, um, mollusk—à la 2020’s My Octopus Teacher lurking in the wings to rob a better movie of its prize. (History will remember Garrett Bradley’s Time long after the octopus movie has been forgotten.) Even in the absence of a clear favorite, it seems likely that something relatively worthy will win the trophy.
The most Octopus-Teacher-ish of the bunch is probably Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, which follows three men who’ve devoted their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating New Delhi’s burgeoning population of black kites. We learn early on that these birds are at once central to the city’s ecosystem and yet on the outside looking in when it comes to wildlife care; because they’re apex predators, they’re unlikely to receive care at local bird hospitals already overrun with patients lower down on the food chain.
There’s something metaphorical going on here: The kites are beautiful, deadly, and vulnerable in equal measure, equipped to hover over their host city’s fray but also prone to being brought down to earth. The people who protect them, meanwhile, perform their duties with a complex mix of tenderness, frustration, and respect; it’s a thankless job that often doesn’t seem worth doing. Sen frames this human story against a backdrop of sectarian violence that doesn’t so much trivialize the question of avian survival as ground it in a larger context of care and empathy. As its title suggests, All That Breathes is preoccupied with life’s fragility—a potentially vacuous conceit that’s filled in with sharp, repertorial details.
As a portrait of self-styled activists who believe they are following some higher calling, All That Breathes is compelling, but it comes up short of the obsessive, literally self-immolating commitment on display in Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love. The film is a posthumous dual character study of the renowned French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, who died together in 1991 during an eruption in Japan. (It would not be a simplification to say that they died doing what they loved.) A good portion of the film’s running time is taken up by the Kraffts’ own indelible images of coruscating lava and billowing ash—scenes that render nature as a kind of special effect. The tension between the life-and-death severity of the material and the slightly cloying voice-over by Miranda July—an artist whose switch is perpetually stuck on “whimsy”—is real, but not disqualifying: the narration is like a lifeline to the audience. In between, Dosa finds ways to convey the Kraffts’ own eloquence about the power and mythology of volcanoes—the language of experts who refuse to split the difference between science and poetry. As for all those white-hot vistas—many photographed at a terrifyingly intimate proximity—they testify, loudly and wordlessly, to their creators’ courage.
There’s another thematic pairing to be made between two docs that deal with 2022’s highest-profile geopolitical conflict. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s evocatively titled A House Made of Splinters is set at a children’s shelter in Eastern Ukraine; the film was shot in 2019 and 2020 before the beginning of the current conflict, but the specter of Russian aggression hovers over its multiple narratives of displacement. At times, the film recalls Allan King’s 1967 masterpiece Warrendale, about a Toronto-based institution for troubled adolescents; the kids in Wilmont’s film may not be psychological case studies, but their vulnerability—in front of the staffers and the director’s unobtrusive camera—is still total. What’s most impressive about the film is its refusal to punch up the material: it finds its rhythm—and heart—in moments of downtime, easing off the sentimental throttle and observing moments of grace for its young protagonists rather than manufacturing them.
But if A House Made of Splinters eschews explicit shaping, Daniel Roher’s Navalny has been torqued to fit the contours of a thriller—to a tee, and maybe also to a fault. The film is named for former Russian opposition leader and current high-security prison inmate Alexei Navalny, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin who was nearly poisoned to death in 2020, with little doubt as to the primary suspect. In a scene that skirts stranger-than-fiction territory, Roher’s camera watches as Navalny calls up a series of Kremlin agents whom he suspects as having had a hand in his poisoning. The first three calls get him nowhere, but the fourth yields a confirmation that’s simultaneously hilarious and horrifying—like a Jerky Boys routine with life-and-death stakes. The point is double-edged. Even while recuperating in an undisclosed location, Navalny has guts to spare, while his adversaries are defined by a combination of unimaginable power and limited intellectual capability—a mirror of the politician’s own argument as his nation’s most notorious and lionized dissenter.
There’s a self-reflexive layer to Navalny that some may find too clever. When Roher’s star asks him not to “make a boring movie of memory,” it’s as much a comment on documentary conventions as his own desire to live long enough to be the hero of his own story. Working against boredom is always a good idea. The problem is that while Navalny makes clear what its hero is up against—and in Putin, he’s up against the closest thing the world has right now to a James Bond supervillain—it’s less communicative (or concerned) about his actual politics or values. It’s very much a movie shaped in its subject’s image. Navalny sees himself as a cloak-and-dagger type, and his media-savvy presentation makes him an analogue to Putin’s other bête noire, Volodymyr Zelensky (who himself just got the documentary treatment via Sean Penn). The question is whether these tactics, however ingenious, can ultimately amount to more than enshrinement—a question that Navalny leaves not only unanswered, but unasked.
There’s nothing in any of the other Best Documentary nominees that tops Navalny’s heart-stopping prank-call set piece, but there are bits in Laura Poitras’s devastating All the Beauty and the Bloodshed that come close. Chief among them is a video call between the film’s heroine, photographer-slash-activist Nan Goldin, and members of the Sackler family, the noted clan of billionaire philanthropists and culture vultures whose fortune has been built on the manufacturing and sale of Oxycontin. Since 2017, Goldin—who developed a debilitating opioid addiction following a wrist injury—has been involved in flamboyantly denouncing the Sacklers in a variety of public forums, but here, addressing her targets face-to-face on a computer screen, the performance falls away and all that’s left is blistering, barely restrained rage. For their part, the Sacklers can barely raise their eyes to meet their own webcams.
The story of Goldin’s efforts with her advocacy group P.A.I.N—Prescription Addiction Intervention Now—serves as a useful spine for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but Poitras’s film is structurally more complex than a simple anti-Pharma fable. Its true subject is the relationship between trauma and artistic impulse, and the slippery nature of inspiration. Goldin’s older sister Barbara died by suicide when they were both still children, and she talks about the event as the primal scene for her photography, not only because of Barbara’s struggles with mental health, but because photography was a way to keep people from disappearing.
Goldin’s landmark 1985 slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, made up of photographs gleaned over several decades of documenting New York’s LGBT subculture, is Goldin’s most famous work, and Poitras includes generous excerpts in the film as a way of illustrating her practice. The show’s occasionally harrowing, largely eroticized assemblage doubles as an anthropological document and a highly subjective visual diary of a paradigm shift in American history. Goldin’s images of fast-living, hard-loving artists, subversives, and no-hopers are haunted by the specters of AIDS and the callous dismissal of the Reagan-era moral majority that saw its victims as collateral damage in a larger culture war. What’s fascinating about Goldin’s ongoing battle with the Sacklers is how it shows Goldin battling, in some cases, against the very institutions that have celebrated her work. A publicity stunt involving the pool outside the Met’s Temple of Dendur and a cache of empty prescription bottles is staged to suggest a well that’s been poisoned from the inside.
Poitras has never been a light-fingered filmmaker; her Oscar-winning Citizenfour insisted on Edward Snowden’s heroism so adamantly we weren’t allowed to discover it for ourselves. (Chances are that movie was an influence on Navalny.) Here, though, she channels her agitprop instincts in a more nuanced direction, and Goldin—a shutterbug who’s also got the charisma of a performer—justifies her director’s attention. With its carefully fragmented narrative and detours into photo-essay montage, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed makes for a challenging and harrowing viewing, which is, of course, the point. It invites the audience to meet it—and Goldin—on their own terms, and rewards the effort.
There’s something to be said for that kind of rigor, especially in a year when the presence of some blockbuster titles in the Best Picture category suggests a possible populist shift in the Academy’s attitudes. Escapism is only one of the things we go to the movies for, and whatever their individual virtues or flaws, the films in the Best Documentary category offer some different paths—not only away from the mainstream, but also outside of their audiences’ comfort zones.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.