Persecution, ability, a virus and more — four documentaries to watch now
With the Academy Awards documentary shortlist announcement coming Feb. 9, here’s a quick look at four contenders among the record number of 215 films that have qualified for competition, with an estimated 25 yet to be added. The robust figure arises amid special eligibility rules that account for the pandemic’s impact on theatrical exhibition.
‘A Thousand Cuts’
Baltimore-based filmmaker Ramona Diaz has been making movies about her native Philippines since she began her documentary career in the late 1990s. One of her first subjects was the island nation’s larger-than-life former first lady, Imelda Marcos. Yet the familiar terrain was full of surprises when she returned in 2018, intending to film a mosaic-like saga set against strongman president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war.
“I always had it as this Robert Altman-esque ‘Short Cuts’ kind of story,” Diaz said. Her film, “A Thousand Cuts,” still has some of that structure but became an urgent portrait of crusading journalist Maria Ressa, whose website Rappler has been targeted by the government for its reporting. Ressa had been arrested and was becoming a global figure when Time magazine named her one of its persons of the year in 2018.
“Those were gifts from the documentary gods, which you have to pay attention to,” said Diaz, whose project also holds up an uncanny mirror to the world beyond Manila as it details what she calls “the weaponization of social media.”
Ressa is free on bail while she appeals a prison sentence of up to six years for cyberlibel, and she faces a series of other charges. She has become a symbol of resistance against Duterte’s authoritarian rule. “She could possibly go to jail for 100 years,” said Diaz, who captures the journalist’s stirring resilience. “She is fighting it all the way.”
Jim LeBrecht had a different relationship to summer camp than most kids. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. “Many of us had gone to camps where we really felt infantilized,” he said. But Camp Jened was something else. “It was a utopia. They said, ‘Hey, you’re a teenager! Let’s have a really good summer.’”
LeBrecht celebrates those summers, and the revolution they inspired, in “Crip Camp,” the story of the Catskills haven for kids with disabilities that, in the 1960s and ‘70s, thrived with a counterculture spirit. The sound designer co-directs the Netflix documentary with filmmaker Nicole Newnham — his longtime colleague — and also narrates and shares the screen with campmates who carried the camp’s legacy forward, spearheading the disability rights movement.
The film, which won the U.S. documentary audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and was executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, tells much of its story through archival footage. As Newnham explained, it’s used in such a way that as a viewer, “you become almost a camper yourself.” LeBrecht’s connection to the subjects also helps to prompt a rich candor from his old friends, interviewed as adults.
“There’s a history of our story being told in a way that really blows it,” LeBrecht said, “and people not getting it. But we had an opportunity to tell it from within the community, in our own voice, and people were really willing to speak truth.”
A bracing chronicle of the first four months of the COVID-19 crisis as it erupts in Wuhan, China, “76 Days” offers a crucial first draft of history from viral ground zero.
Hao Wu, a Chinese American documentarian, worked with footage shot by two Chinese collaborators, Weixi Chen and a co-director who remains anonymous, cutting together stories he found across scenes filmed in four hospitals. As medical teams struggle against overwhelming demands, the cameras find a soulfulness amid the apocalyptic ruckus.
“They show so much compassion and sensitivity about the people they’re filming,” said Wu, who came up with a very practical approach to editing the footage. “I tried to follow their lead, to showcase the common humanity even in such dire situations: How people live through their early fear and panic, how people still have a desperate need to connect, how they help each other to survive this together.”
The film’s vérité approach contrasts with the investigative tone of another recent pandemic doc, “Totally Under Control,” directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. Wu looked instead to the example of documentary legend Frederick Wiseman, whose immersive films anatomize institutions through keen observation and canny editing. “I had to trust my emotional gut,” Wu said. “Everybody has a very strong and different emotional beat. That’s why despite their PPEs, the audience can keep track of them.”
‘Acasa, My Home’
What might have been tabloid fodder — the story of a sprawling clan living off the land in an abandoned urban wilderness in Bucharest — becomes a profound exploration of family, nature and contemporary society in “Acasa, My Home.”
Romanian journalist Radu Ciorniciuc spent four years filming the Enache family, led by its grizzled patriarch Gica, whose nine children ramble the untamed habitat of the Bucharest Delta, an ecological wonderland that hosts hundreds of animal and plant species.
“It was a unique story, especially for a person living just two streets away,” said Ciorniciuc, whose fascination led him into a place considered a no man’s land. Conflict arises as the family is evicted so the expanse can be reclaimed as the Vacaresti Park Nature Reserve. An uneasy adjustment to city life brings needed schooling for the children but also creates new tensions, which the film leaves unresolved amid its prize-winning cinematography of the park’s natural splendor.
“It’s never easy to go past your own preconceptions in seeing life,” the filmmaker said. “I’m really proud we managed to do this .… It creates a bit more space for the characters to show you the world from their own perspective.”
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