The 94th Academy Awards ceremony is right around the corner and five movies from across the planet are up for top prize Sunday night.
As award season is wrapping up, I caught all of this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Feature and had some thoughts about each one. Of all the nominees, I enjoyed “Summer of Soul” the most, but there are certainly others I’d recommend, too.
“Ascension” is an observational documentary, with no narration, interviews or graphics inserted during its runtime. As a visual piece of media, it succeeds at giving an audience a look into China’s many fast-paced industries thanks to strong camerawork and editing.
However, the film is one that’s difficult to be really invested in. It bounces around quite a lot from industry to industry, and it’s hard to really get a sense of what the film is trying to say.
Is it about how China’s culture impacts the economic growth and company practices? Is it about Chinese employees being overworked? The movie’s called “Ascension,” but it doesn’t really capture anyone moving up by economic class or up a corporate ladder.
There’s a story at play here, as the film starts with people looking for work and continues to examine jobs at higher statuses as it goes. Yet the story isn’t one a person can latch on to as there’s not much of a focus on any one worker to build a character to follow or a specific company or industry that is going through a dramatic period.
Also, maybe I just need new glasses, but the subtitles were hard to read with this one. Tiny white text being used when a lot of the background has very light colors make it difficult to read what’s being said.
I can’t say I’d recommend this one.
“Attica” is probably the hardest watch of any documentary this year because of the subject matter. The 1971 incident at the Attica State Prison in western New York ended with bloodshed and human rights violations, and the film documents this.
The movie, which aired on Showtime, is told through a series of interviews with former inmates, officials, and relatives of those who lost loved ones. The interview portions are set in between photos and footage of the event.
It offers an intimate, honest look into the historic event and allows an audience to understand why and how the situation happened.
The problem is the film lacks greater detail. The picture needed some bookends, as it starts swiftly and dives right in without much explanation and ends just as abruptly.
There’s not much information given on the history of the prison, or how tensions reached such a boiling point that it led to the incident. It also doesn’t go into much of what happened after, in terms of potential law changes and the impact it had on prisons across the nation.
Additionally, while it’s admirable that the filmmakers wanted to show the brutality of how the situation ended, the movie tends to show certain images for so long that it seemed gratuitous.
“Attica” is a documentary I can recommend, but with the caveat that it can be tough to watch.
“Flee” is a fascinating, emotional documentary about a gay man who had to leave Afghanistan as a child when the country was going through a period of civil war following the Soviet invasion. Amin, the film’s subject, now lives in Denmark, but his journey there was a harrowing one full of danger and strife.
Amin isn’t the man’s real name, and the whole film is animated to keep his identity anonymous. The result is a wonderful documentary that captures the journey refugees from war-torn countries have to make in a unique way.
There’s a nice visual balance, with Amin’s “flashbacks” being a mix of animated sequences and real footage from the historic events. It makes for a well rounded movie.
It’s also the type of documentary where the subject is interesting at a micro and macro level. On a personal level, Amin’s story is one that is compelling, as he tries to maintain a connection with his family which is becoming scattered across Europe, and as he learns about his own sexuality.
At the same time, the film has a broader scope, about what what the nation of Afghanistan has been through and how refugees have, and continue to be treated.
I don’t think all of the animation styles used in the film worked but I absolutely recommend this film to anyone interested in seeing a unique doc.
Summer of Soul
The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, also known as Black Woodstock, is wonderfully captured in this musical documentary. The film uses a lot of footage recovered from the festival and works as a sort of concert movie, allowing an audience to enjoy great music while also learning more about the event’s impact.
The movie explores not only how the event was a festival that brought people together, but also how it tied into that period in history. Like the Woodstock festival happening in another area of New York state around the same time, the event took place after the year 1968, where Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and the Vietnam War was underway.
The film acknowledges this, noting how activists participated, as well as how t the festival had appearances by politicians like New York City Mayor John Lindsay and civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson. The way the film incorporates these aspects elevate it, giving it a great deal of depth.
A lot of credit has to go to the filmmakers for restoring the footage to such a good degree. It’s quite impressive how good the footage of the concert looks, and how it was brought together with the interviews is worthy of praise.
This is an easy one to recommend. Not only is the film preserving an important piece of culture, it also captures what the festival meant to the nation at the time and the legacy it left.
Writing with Fire
Set in India, this documentary explores the operation of Khabar Lahariya, a news outlet run by Dalit women. Dalit in India are a lower classed social group in the country’s hierarchy.
The film follows their coverage on a number of assignments, from elections to unsolved crimes in rural areas. The film additionally shows how the print outlet is making the transition to digital news, with video reports being uploaded to YouTube.
One can really appreciate the documentary for showing the dedicated work these journalists do day-in and day-out. Their assignments can often be dangerous, they’re sometimes stonewalled by people they’re trying to interview and sometimes their own families aren’t fully supportive.
They carry on and still produce hard-hitting news, though. As a viewer, it’s an inspiring documentary to watch.
However, the film is lacking in detail at some points. For example, it would have been nice to see how the operation is funded, what goes into designing and printing the paper product and what sort of subscriber base there is.
The film also is a bit too scattered. While it’s great to see these reporters covering so many topics, it could have helped to choose one as the dominant subject.
The Oscar-nominated 2020 film “Collective” from Romania did just this, following a newspaper tracking down corruption in the nation’s health system.
Still, this is a compelling documentary to watch and an audience can really root for these journalists to succeed. It’s worth checking out.