Like the International Feature Film branch, the Documentary branch has been the most notoriously insular and withholding branch of the Academy. Continued pressure to change or alter their voting rules after bizarre snubs would occur year after year didn’t do what the Academy expected; in fact, it did the opposite. Under the current rules, the entire Academy can vote here but the doc branch still decides on the nominees. Knowing this, and that the voting body at large will most likely just vote for the one doc they’ve seen or heard about the most, the nominating committee has consistently snubbed the most popular, most widely seen and biggest critical hits year after year. Life Itself, Blackfish, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Jane and Apollo 11 just this year were all frontrunners until the doc branch decided they weren’t. Now, I get what the intention is and it is to get people to see lesser seen films, but I still think it’s a bit petty and a backwards way to do it and it’s clear that there is a ways to go before this category is going to see the right balance between what should be voted on and what is.
That brings us though, to an actually competitive category this season. While visibility is still key, any of these five docs stands an excellent chance at winning with Apollo 11 not here (it easily would have triumphed). Ranging from incredibly topical to emotionally rich in narrative, every film here has something going for it.
American Factory from Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, hits home hard in the economically ravished auto industry of rural Ohio during an administration that has favored billionaires over the working class. It’s also former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s first executive-produced film from their new film company and backed by Netflix. The BAFTA and BIFA-winning For Sama is a brutal and urgent look at the war in Syria from a female filmmaker (Waad Al-Kateab) through the lens of making a better life for her daughter by documenting her country in real time. Honeyland is the first film ever to be nominated for Documentary Feature and International Feature Film and it’s a gorgeous and sad story of a beekeeper in the mountains of Macedonia trying to make the most meager of living while caring for her elderly and invalid mother. The Cave also details the war in Syria with a focus on female doctors and the systemic sexism they face even in the middle of saving lives. The Edge of Democracy highlights the protests in Brazil and ever-rising dominance of extreme right leaders across the world (also from the eyes of a female filmmaker, Petra Costa).
Whew. That’s a lot and I know for some voters the heaviness of these films is often overwhelming but often the most-needed to be told stories come from documentary features as they open our eyes to world events and events in the US that must be experienced to gain empathy and understanding. So, of all of these rich stories, what will voters gravitate to?
I’m giving the edge to American Factory fall all the reasons stated above: Netflix, a US-driven narrative that’s an FU to Trump and his trade wars and the Obamas. But there’s a case to be made in For Sama‘s favor as a potential winner too. Could voters go for Honeyland here since they’re not going to vote for it in International Feature Film? I’m sure there are some that will but not sure if it’s enough to push it over.
Here are my ranked Final Oscar predictions for Documentary Feature.
|1. American Factory (Netflix)||BAFTA, CCA, DGA|
|2. For Sama (PBS)||BAFTA|
|3. Honeyland (Neon)||CCA, DGA|
|4. The Cave (National Geographic)||CCA, DGA|
|5. The Edge of Democracy (Netflix)||N/A|