Oscar Docs: A Look at the nominees

The Academy Awards sometimes gets a bad rap for being a night where Hollywood “pats itself on the back.”

While that does happen, though, the Oscars do play another important role. It shines a spotlight on films that can sometimes go under the radar. This is especially true for documentaries, which are often not found at major movie theaters that people go to on a Friday night.

This year, five documentaries have been given the honor of being nominees and now, I’ve seen all of them. The following are my honest thoughts on each nominee.

Collective

CollectiveBlog
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

This film tells the story of the Romanian newspaper The Sports Gazette investigating fraud in the nation’s health care system. The journalistic investigation was launched after a catastrophic fire took place that led to several citizens dying.

Rather than losing their lives in the fire itself, though, many died in the following days from malpractice. The film follows the news team uncovering fraud and shortcuts taken by both government representatives and health officials.

The film does great work in showcasing the important work this newsroom did and the necessity of the fourth estate in general when it comes to accountability. Director Alexander Nanau and his team did exceptional work in capturing the personality of the reporters, too, making for a more well-rounded documentary.

Where the movie hits a bit of a snag, though, is everything outside of the newsroom. At about the halfway point, the lead health official of the government is replaced and the new person coming in is closely followed by the documentary team.

Not that this aspect isn’t important, but it almost feels like a different documentary as it shifts to the inner workings of the government. The number of scenes featuring the news team simply decreases as it goes on.

A more balanced approach would have been much more appreciated. Additionally, more details on the government of Romania and the nation itself would have helped for viewers outside of the country.

The movie is basically all raw footage, and while its well edited together for a chronological tale of events, adding interviews and/or graphs may have helped to better understand the country’s political history better.

Despite some issues, though, “Collective” is still highly recommended.

Crip Camp

CripcampBLog
Courtesy Crip Camp.

The Civil Rights movement that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and its humble beginnings, are explored in this documentary. “Crip Camp” tells the story of several disabled Americans who attended a summer camp in upstate New York who later grew up to be political activists.

This doc is a pretty straightforward one. It’s informative, but not necessarily groundbreaking. The film covers a lot of important basics when it comes to how the ADA was created, but it’s noticeable that a lot of details are crammed in here.

While the summer camp was definitely a big factor in the lives of these people, it feels like there was too much time dedicated to it, since so much of the social change occurred after.

The film is still well put together, though. Not only does it give plenty of details for an audience, it also allows the people showcased to truly become characters.

Somewhat similar to an episode of “The American Experience” series on PBS, “Crip Camp” is recommended.

The Mole Agent

MoleAgentBLog
Courtesy Gravitas Ventures.

Sergio Chamy is the titular character in this film. An older, retired man living in Chile, Chamy is hired at the movie’s outset by a private investigator to live at a retirement home.

His task while living there is to observe the practices by the staff, and to discover if the mother of the person who hired the investigator is being mistreated. The film explores how Chamy does this, and how he interacts with others who live there.

While “The Mole Agent” doesn’t appear to be staged, it certainly is manipulative. Early on it becomes apparent that the documentary camera crew already has access to the retirement home, and issues of elderly loneliness could be captured by them.

However, what could be an honest look at a situation that’s relatable around the world becomes undercut by the attempts at making this a quirky, lighthearted picture by following Chamy as a ‘spy.’ On top of it being a less serious take, it’s also just not that interesting watching Chamy go about his business here.

Most scenes just show women who’re residents of the home talking to Chamy and him nodding along. There’s not much being explored here. An audience can’t get a sense of how these people really feel since they’re trying to build a friendship with Chamy, rather than give their thoughts on the situation.

We as an audience also have a rather narrow perspective. For example, the staff of the facility is almost never featured and the aspect of how they provide company to the residents is not brought up.

As a reporter, I’ve covered several visitation events at retirement homes and programs such as Meals on Wheels. I completely understand the importance of socializing and visiting for the elderly.

I believe there’s a better way to cover this subject than a somewhat humorous approach. Especially when the main person featured here isn’t that vocal or passionate about the situation. Not recommended.

My Octopus Teacher

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Courtesy Netflix.

This movie follows a filmmaker, Criag Foster, who documented his experiences interacting with an octopus in False Bay, South Africa. On top of detailing the wildlife and vegetation of the area, the film also explores how the aquatic experience impacted Craig Foster.

Had “My Octopus Teacher” been a 30-minute or hour-long nature documentary simply about octopuses on National Geographic or Animal Planet, it would have been a perfectly fine film. What audiences get instead, though, isn’t all that great.

While the Octopus and other wildlife should take center stage, it’s Foster, a rather privileged individual, who is constantly platformed. Unfortunately, Foster isn’t a great protagonist.

The film shows him projecting his feelings on to this octopus while also anthropomorphizing it, instead of simply observing the natural world. The film also fails to push back on what Foster did.

The movie informs the audience that Foster was visiting this octopus basically every day. Yet Foster never speaks about the impact his attention being drawn away had on his family, what his constant trips to the habitat meant for the ecosystem, or his mental health history.

Visually, the documentary is gorgeous. A version of the film with simply the underwater footage and some music would be good. #releasetheoctopuscut. As it is, it’s only recommended to big fans of sea creatures and underwater nature. Otherwise, it’s skippable.

Time

TimeBlog
Courtesy Amazon Studios.

“Time” follows Sibil Fox Richardson who raised three children while her husband, Robert, served 21 years in prison. The movie gives background on the impacts the situation had on Sibil’s family and the issues of incarceration in America.

“Time” is a rather challenging film to watch, and not in a good way. The documentary is noticeably lacking in key details, and the information that was shared was done so in an incoherent manner.

Regarding the former issue, we as an audience learn that Sibil and Robert robbed a bank out of “desperation.” Before that, it’s shown that they were trying to start a business, but we don’t find out if their business was going under or if they were facing bankruptcy. It just jumps ahead to the charges they received.

The film details how Robert received a sentence of 60 years in prison, which is way too long. However, we also find out that Robert was offered a plea agreement for a lighter sentence and didn’t take it, yet we never learn why.

As for the latter problem brought up, the film jumps all over the place, and it gets hard to keep up with what year a certain moment is taking place in, or what stage Sibil’s legal work to get Robert out of prison is at.

It’s understandable that sections of home video were placed in between ‘present day’ scenes to humanize the family, but it makes the film messy.

The film is deserving of credit when it comes to the artistry, with both a strong visual identity and good music. However, the subject of problems in the nation’s prison system have been documented better in films like “13th” and “Kids for Cash,” the latter covering the “kids for cash” scandal in Pennsylvania.

Not recommended.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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