There’s a kaleidoscopic array of styles and themes at play in this year’s contenders for the Academy Awards’ documentary prize: From out-of-this-world archival adventures to gritty, life-or-death stories to intimate portraits of forgotten ways of life, all of them tied together by the extraordinary personalities before the camera. Here are four films to look for when the documentary shortlist is announced in December.
Few fictional dramas can boast a hero as intrepid or personable as Amani Ballor. She leads a team of physicians in a makeshift underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta — nicknamed “The Cave” — while Russian bombs shatter what’s left of the Syrian city above and often wreak havoc below. Dr. Amani, as she’s called, doggedly perseveres with humor and steely nerves against harrowing odds, captured with visceral immediacy by a fearless team of cinematographers.
Yet the film explores an even more complicated mission. “It’s the story of a woman trying to treat society,” said director Feras Fayyad. “Not just save lives but also change the society from deeply, deeply inside.”
“The Cave,” released by National Geographic Documentary Films, won audience prizes at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Camden International Film Festival, and follows 2017’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” an Oscar-nominated film about the White Helmet rescue workers in the Syrian Civil War, which Fayyad co-directed. (“For Sama,” another remarkable Syrian film, set in a bomb-plagued hospital in Aleppo, is likewise a contender for the academy’s documentary shortlist, having won the top prize for nonfiction film at the Cannes Film Festival.)
Amani’s struggles with her society’s ingrained sexism, and those who criticize her leadership because she is a woman, were of great concern to the filmmaker. “The movie connects to me personally,” said Fayyad, who says he grew up in a family with many sisters and a strong mother. The film is made with them in mind, “but also a picture for all the women in my society.”
One small step for mankind became a giant leap for filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, whose archival epic “Apollo 11” reconstructs the historic mission to put a man on the moon. The project, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, landing, gained from two unexpected boons: a motherlode of undeveloped 65mm film, discovered in the National Archives, that documented the mission, and 11,000 hours of audio recordings that tracked some 60 team members throughout the lunar expedition.
Miller (who made the science-themed 2014 documentary “Dinosaur 13”) relied on a newly developed prototype scanner to handle the volume of large-format film material, bringing to life its extraordinarily vivid detail — captured by some of Hollywood’s leading cinematographers — and turned to coding experts to resolve technical issues with the intimidating volume of unsynchronized audio.
“Apollo 11” topped $12 million at the global box office, making it one of the year’s most popular nonfiction releases. The Neon release brings Miller full circle, as he recalled visiting NASA headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as a child.
“This film for me was an attempt to understand what the mission was and what it represented,” Miller said. “I don’t think it was actually until we went through the process of putting it all together that we realized how profound it is. For me it is and continues to be the pinnacle of human achievement. The fact that so many people came together to make that a reality is absolutely fascinating to me.”
Shot with an exquisite eye over four years of off-and-on treks to a remote part of central Macedonia, “Honeyland” tells the story of Hatidze, a 50-something beekeeper who cares for her invalid mother and tends with loving care to her harmonious relationship with the bees she cultivates. The arrival of a nomadic Turkish family shakes up this delicate balance with nature, as the boisterous new neighbors have needs of their own.
“In documentary filmmaking you never know when the magic will happen,” said Tamara Kotevska, who co-directed the film with Ljubomir Stefanov, capturing 400 hours of footage that was shaped into a feature-length narrative, which will be submitted as Macedonia’s international film Oscar contender. “They’re a huge part of her life and the best possible conflict in the story. We stayed for so long they accepted us as part of their reality.”
The Macedonian filmmakers, whose work won multiple prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, endured unusual rigors during the production, and a full range of risks and annoyances, whether it was the fleas that assaulted Kotevska or the wolves that prowled the craggy landscape. There also was a language barrier, as some of their subjects spoke an “old Turkish hardly understandable even for Turkish people.” Stefanov said. Working with four translators, the filmmakers discovered they didn’t need to make many changes. “I was amazed by some of the dialogue we had already used without knowing what was there.”
‘Sea of Shadows’
It’s called the “cocaine of the sea”: the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, which sells for thousands to black-market customers in China who prize its alleged health-enhancing properties. The fish represents cash flow to poachers in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, whose nets supply a chain that links Mexican cartels to the Chinese underworld. Those nets also pose a grave risk to the vaquita porpoise, a species perilously close to extinction. In the suspenseful “Sea of Shadows,” director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani tracks a team of conservationists, scientists and Mexican law enforcement officers as they take on the destructive alliance.
“As soon as I dove in, I realized what a symbolic story it was,” said Ladkani, an Austrian who reunited much of the crew that made 2016’s elephant poaching documentary “The Ivory Game,” which likewise counts Leonardo DiCaprio as an executive producer. “It’s not about the vaquita, it’s about what’s happening to planet Earth everywhere.”
The seriousness of the topic made production value even more critical for the film, a National Geographic Documentary Films release that won an audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
“We felt like we were in the middle of a thriller kind of movie,” Ladkani said. “We have armed cartel guys and they’re shooting people on the street, and we have undercover ex-FBI people, there are hidden cameras and [people] infiltrating the Chinese mafia.” The filmmaker and his team had to keep their wits about them, and also pull off discreet multiple-camera shots of the operations as they went down. There wouldn’t be any second takes.
“It’s purposely made more commercial,” he said, “so we can appeal to an audience that can make things change.”