For years HBO Documentary Films, under the stewardship of Sheila Nevins, dominated the Oscars, racking up nominations and wins left and right. But since her departure in 2018 it has faced an Oscar dry spell, at least in the documentary feature category. All that could change this year, in a major way.
HBO Documentary Films has roared into awards season with perhaps the strongest slate of contenders of any distributor, beginning with Oscar favorite All That Breathes (with theatrical partners Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe). Shaunak Sen’s lyrical film about two brothers in Delhi, India who rescue and rehabilitate injured birds of prey won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance and followed that up by winning the L’Œil d’or prize for documentary at Cannes. All That Breathes has kept the momentum going, taking top honors at the IDA Documentary Awards on Saturday and a nomination from the Cinema Eye Honors.
All the awards attention has left Sen somewhat flummoxed. “Just to get into the likes of Sundance and Cannes, let alone winning them, is already at the top of my desire matrix,” he says. “It’s really something that feels not entirely processed.”
That feeling may be shared by Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller, who took over HBO Documentary Films from Nevins. They’ve got another top Oscar contender in Moonage Daydream, in tandem with Neon, far and away the highest-grossing documentary to reach theaters this year with $12 million worldwide. Brett Morgen’s film on David Bowie has stunned with its immersive exploration of the late rock star’s artistic ambitions.
Morgen has traveled the world in support of the film and conducted a running master class on Twitter, explaining his color correction choices virtually frame by frame. “It’s not just about aesthetics. Color has a profound impact on a film’s pacing,” he tweeted just before Thanksgiving. “Thrilled that so many of you find the color conversation intriguing.”
HBO Documentary Films’ contenders by no means end there. It’s also got The Janes, directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, and Master of Light, a film about formerly imprisoned artist George Anthony Morton directed by Rosa Ruth Boesten and produced by a trio that includes Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams. It also boasts the IDA Award-nominated Katrina Babies, from director Edward Buckles Jr., a documentary built around reflections of people, like Buckles, who were kids when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
“They believed in my voice,” Buckles says of working with the HBO Documentary Films team. “Even when I was still searching for my voice they were patient and were like, ‘He’s going to find it.’ …They have such great taste that they believed in the project all along, at every stage.”
Further burnishing the HBO brand are The Balcony Movie (from HBO Europe), Paweł Łozinski’s curiously absorbing documentary filmed entirely from his balcony overlooking a street in Warsaw, Poland, and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, an Oscar favorite directed by Laura Poitras (Citizenfour). The Poitras film examines the life and work of artist Nan Goldin, emphasizing Goldin’s campaign to expose the role of the Sackler family — owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma — in the opioid crisis. The artist became addicted to OxyContin and made it her mission to get the Sackler name removed from many of the world’s leading museums, which had accepted reputation-cleansing funds from the wealthy philanthropists.
“When she started doing these protests,” Poitras noted during a discussion of the documentary at the New York Film Festival, “I was just so moved and inspired that Nan was using her position in the art world to hold the Sackler family accountable.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, was produced by Participant and released in domestic theaters by Neon, the independent production company and distributor that has become a perennial Oscar documentary contender. Along with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Moonage Daydream, Neon boasts an impressive slate that includes Beba, directed by Rebeca Huntt, and Three Minutes – A Lengthening, from director Bianca Stigter, a film that conducts a forensic investigation into rare footage shot in a Jewish section of a Polish town on the eve of World War II.
The Academy’s Documentary Branch — which determines the shortlist of 15 features and the eventual five Oscar nominees — has welcomed many international members to its ranks in recent years. That has helped open the door to international-themed films that might otherwise have failed to break through, including recent nominees Writing with Fire (India), The Mole Agent (Chile), Collective (Romania), and Honeyland (North Macedonia). The international factor could boost the prospects of several films this year, from A House Made of Splinters, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary about a temporary shelter for children in Eastern Ukraine, to Evgeny Afineevsky’s timely Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a film that went into production almost immediately after Russia’s brutal invasion of its neighbor.
“We wanted to try to influence that the war will not be neglected,” Afineevsky says, “that people will not forget that every day innocent people are dying.”
Tantura, out of Israel, and Young Plato, set in a primary school in Northern Ireland, are among the other films that could benefit from the Doc Branch’s international dimension.
National Geographic won the Oscar in 2019 for Free Solo, and it’s back this year with two more Oscar favorites: Fire of Love, directed by Sara Dosa, and The Territory, directed by Alex Pritz. Fire of Love, winner of numerous awards around the world — including two on Saturday at the IDA Awards — tells the gripping story of French couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, scientists whose obsessive study of volcanoes ultimately cost them their lives. The Territory centers on a portion of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest that is home to the Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people, whose protected lands come under constant invasion by miners, loggers and homesteaders. The invaders have burned down huge tracts of the rainforest, threatening not only Indigenous tribes but one of the planet’s most important ecosystems.
“We’re nearing 100 film festivals now and it’s just been an incredible ride,” Pritz notes. “One of the most meaningful things for us was that NatGeo supported us to release the film in Brazilian theaters… The response from Brazil has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Retrograde, also from National Geographic, marks the latest Oscar contender from filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, The First Wave). Netflix, meanwhile, contends with a quartet of films, its hopes pinned primarily on Sr., Chris Smith’s documentary about filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and his relationship with his son, Robert Downey Jr., and Descendant, directed by Mobile, Alabama native Margaret Brown. She documents a Mobile neighborhood known as Africatown that was founded in the 19th century by survivors of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter U.S. waters.
Netflix and Higher Ground, the production company founded by former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, acquired Descendant out of the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. The Obamas made a surprise appearance on behalf of the film at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival last August.
“Descendant reminds us of the power of the stories that we have,” Mrs. Obama noted on that occasion. President Obama said, “This documentary captures an important chapter in our history — one that’s too often distorted, forgotten, or buried… For the people of Africatown this represented a story of pain and extraordinary hardship, but also a story of strength, resilience, and overcoming.”
Among other streaming powerhouses, Amazon Studios contends with Wildcat, directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, and Good Night Oppy, directed by Ryan White. The latter film, from Amblin Entertainment, leverages exceptional visual effects by ILM to take viewers to the surface of Mars, where NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity searched for evidence that organic life may once have existed on the red planet.
The announcement in late October that CNN under new CEO Chris Licht would back away from producing documentaries with outside partners was met with shock in the nonfiction community. But CNN Films, which earned an Oscar nomination with 2018’s RBG, could go out with a bang with two fresh contenders: Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, from RBG directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, and Navalny, directed by Daniel Roher. Navalny focuses on Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader whose anti-corruption campaign and criticism of Vladimir Putin made him the target of a near-fatal poisoning attempt. It has earned awards at film festivals from Seattle to Sundance.
MTV Documentary Films, now headed by Sheila Nevins — the former HBO Documentary Films chief — earned an Oscar nomination for 2021’s Ascension and is back in contention with Last Flight Home, director Ondi Timoner’s emotional film on her ailing father, entrepreneur Eli Timoner, and his decision to end his life as permitted by California’s End of Life Option Act.
Shortlist wildcards include Bad Axe, the feature directorial debut of David Siev from IFC Films, Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures), I Didn’t See You There (XTR), Mija (Disney Original Documentary), What We Leave Behind (Array Releasing), The Corridors of Power (Showtime), and Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power (Greenwich Entertainment/Participant).
Two contenders from Apple Original Films focus on American icons: Sidney, the Oprah-produced film about actor Sidney Poitier, directed by Reginald Hudlin, and Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, directed by Sacha Jenkins. The Armstrong film delves into private audio recordings made by the jazz great which shed light on his struggles as an African American artist and entertainer in a deeply racist society.
“Both Imagine Documentaries and Apple have been extremely supportive. And never in my career have I had this kind of attention on my work and our work as a team and it feels great. It makes you feel appreciated,” Jenkins observes. “There are so many things people can watch today. There’s so many platforms and networks and documentaries that are great that come out and they’re gone a week later.”
More than 140 feature documentaries have qualified for Oscar consideration, up from last year’s totals. They’re all vying for recognition that ensures they aren’t gone in a week, but stand the test of time.