The Best Documentary category is an important part of Oscar night, celebrating films that dig into hot topics or study important figures.
Like most years, the 2022 docs up for an award this season includes films from across the world covering a wide array of topics. Unfortunately, this year’s lineup tended to be a bit weaker than those in past seasons.
There are still some that are recommendable, though. Find out my thoughts below.
All that Breathes
This documentary focuses mainly on two brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who work to rescue and treat injured birds. Set in India, the film follows the two as they find birds, specifically black kites, and nurse them back to health. While some of the birds are injured, many of them are also suffering from the pollution in the city of New Delhi.
I really admire what these two men are doing. Their effort is pure and selfless, with a goal of simply trying to help nature in a way they can. In addition to their care for wildlife, they also call out the pollution which not only impacts the birds, but the people of the city, too.
With all of that said, “All That Breathes” is a documentary that’s not all that gripping. There are many major lulls in the picture, with several stretches where little is taking place. Sorry to say, but the subjects of the movie are lacking in personality, meaning the documentary doesn’t have any good characters to follow.
It’s such a loose production, too. There doesn’t seem to be a tight focus on the broader implications of what these men are doing. Maybe share more statistics about black kites and birds in general, as well as the impacts of pollution on them.
How about how pollution has changed in India and what their environmental policy looks like? Are these brothers supportive of politics or movements looking to change things?
There just needed to be more thrust with this. As it is, it’s quite well shot, but despite being able to appreciate the efforts of these men, “All That Breathes” is mostly dull. Not recommended.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Nan Goldin is the central figure in this documentary. On top of having an expansive career as a photography artist, Goldin is also a strong activist against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family, which both played an immense role in startingthe opioid epidemic. A recovering Oxycontin addict herself, Goldin pushed for the Sackler name to be removed from the art centers that host her work.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” felt like a wasted opportunity. The film’s real hook is the activist work by Goldin against the Oxycontin manufacturers, with the fall-out of the opioid epidemic being still felt in communities throughout the country. I’ve even written about it in my time as a reporter.
However, if I had to guess, I’d say only about 30 percent of the movie is actually focused on this aspect. The rest of the movie is focused on Goldin’s earlier life, how she left home at an early age, found comfort in the LGBT community and developed as an artist.
Goldin’s life is certainly one that has had its fair share of trauma, heartbreak, and success, yet the way the film puts it together doesn’t really work. The movie will follow a bit of the present fight against the Sacklers, and then jump back to an earlier part of Goldin’s life.
The problem is that there’s really little to no connection there. Again, this feels like a missed opportunity. When flashing back to her life in the 70s, the movie could have gone into how the Sacklers found success in marketing Valium in that decade, all while President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.”
In the 80s, the film could have focused on the AIDS epidemic, and the lack of a response for an extended period of time, including by drug manufacturers. AIDS is touched on in the film, but just briefly.
It’s also notable that the film gives Goldin and her group quite a bit of credit for Purdue’s eventual bankruptcy and the removal of the Sackler name from many locations.
However, there were many who fought against the injustices of the Sacklers, such as the families featured in this documentary who make statements to the opioid makers during a trial scene. Only recommended for fans of Goldin’s art or those who want a different perspective on the opioid crisis.
Fire of Love
The lives of scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who dedicated their time on this Earth to researching volcanoes, are the focus of this documentary.
Visually, “Fire of Love” is absolutely stunning to watch. The vast amounts of footage the Kraffts took is amazing, as viewers are treated to rivers of lava, volcanoes that burst explosively and those that send plumes of ash high into the sky.
It’s fascinating to experience the power of nature, and it gives a viewer an appreciation for what the Kraffts captured on camera. What’s less fascinating is the narration taking place in the background.
The narration, by Miranda July, tells the Krafft’s story, how they met, began their careers and became well known, but it’s done in such an overly poetic way.
It’s true, a more straightforward, factual type of narration may have been more dry. But the one that’s provided in “Fire of Love” feels too artsy fartsy. It also seems like July is telling the audience things that may or may not be true, like what the Kraffts were feeling at a given time, for example.
Again, the footage is a treat here, and it makes the doc worth a watch. One just really wishes there had been a more informational structure, where the audience learns about the findings that the Kraffts discovered, and how their work changed volcano safety. Semi-recommended.
A House Made of Splinters
Filmed from 2019-2020, “A House Made of Splinters” centers on a shelter for children who’ve been removed from their homes while court custody decisions are processed. These decisions can sometimes take months, meaning children have to live in the shelter for extended periods of time.
The task of the social workers during the film has become even tougher in recent years, as the shelter is in the Dombas region of Ukraine. The area has been in a stage of conflict since 2014, preceding the current war with Russia.
“Splinters” is nearly entirely an observational documentary, which both helps and hinders the viewing experience. On the one hand, an audience gets a very raw look at the difficulties these children are going through, and the commendable efforts the social workers are making.
It certainly makes for an emotional watch, as one’s heart breaks for these kids. At the same time, though, there’s a sense that the film never digs deeper into the background of the situation.
The audience isn’t given statistics related to poverty, alcoholism, drug use, or other factors that have contributed, nor does it feature experts who can expand on the situation.
The same is true with the war aspect. A viewer can pick up on the fact that war is taking place, but that’s about it, there’s not as much information about what occurred in the Dombas region and how it directly impacted these children.
The documentary crew deserves credit for sharing the stories of these people, and it’s a film that can be recommended for how it captures the perspectives of these kids. However, one should know that the surface is fairly unscratched.
Russian opposition leader and current political prisoner Alexei Navalny is the focus of this documentary. The movie mainly centers on the poisoning of Navalny, and the subsequent investigation on it conducted by him, the head of his anti-corruption organization and an investigative journalist.
Definitely the highlight of this year’s nominees, “Navalny” tells the story of a man trying to do what he can to turn his country around, even if that means sacrificing his freedom. It showcases how he confirms the plot to have him killed, and still decides to go back to Russia, even in the face of certain imprisonment.
It’s a movie with arguably one of the most intense scenes of a film from 2022. There’s a moment where Navalny speaks directly to an individual involved in the poisoning over the phone, and it’s all recorded on camera, with each detail coming out one-by-one. It’s a gripping part of the documentary.
It should be noted, though, that the film is not entirely objective. It is quite anti-Putin, which is entirely fair considering that regime. However, the documentary doesn’t dig too much into where Navalny falls in terms of Russian politics. For example, we as an audience don’t find out where he is on the left-right political spectrum in comparison to Putin.
It would be interesting if a viewer could learn what he would do in a hypothetical “first 100 days in office” for a country that has long been dealing with corruption. The movie also doesn’t follow-up on some concerning statements, such as how Navalny said he would be open to the voting support of extremists, including Nazi factions, if it meant ousting Putin.
Still, it’s an entertaining documentary that gives insight into a prominent opponent of the current Russian regime. It’s an interesting, engaging and informational project, and one that’s recommended.
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