Eye-Openers: Oscar’s Best Documentary Contenders

Often overlooked in the sea of awards season glitz, the Academy’s finalists in the Best Documentary category become history’s time capsules. Many of them have also proven to be prophetic, exposing insights and issuing forewarnings from the front lines of urgent issues, from climate change (An Inconvenient Truth) to gun control (Bowling for Columbine) to workers’ rights (American Dream).   

This year’s final five nominees share an international focus while taking on issues that resonate across borders.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

oscars for best documentary
Bobi Wine as he took his supporters on a run. (c. Lookman Kampala)

The Story:  In Uganda’s 2021 presidential election, the music star, activist and opposition leader Bobi Wine, together with his wife Barbie, launches a life threatening campaign for democracy by challenging President Yoweri Museveni’s oppressive 35-year regime.

Why it’s relevant:  At a time when Reuters is reporting that half of the world’s countries are suffering from democratic decline, the film captures the courage and inspiration needed to challenge an autocracy. While there is always some level of risk when making a documentary, the filmmakers here never shy away from danger. They capture every brutal moment, even the immediate aftermath of the shooting of  Wine’s music producer. As Wendy Ife described in her review of the film in The Guardian, It’s a gripping piece of film-making: a propulsive, kinetic account of a grassroots campaign captured at what would seem to be considerable personal risk to both the subject and directors.” Visceral and stirring, Bobi Wine: The People’s President proves just how powerful a documentary can be.  Where to stream it: Disney Plus 

The Eternal Memory

oscars for best documentaryThe Story:  Eight years into his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a renowned Chilean cultural commentator and TV presenter tries to hold on to his recollections, his identity, and his memories with his beloved wife, Paulina, by his side.

Why it’s relevant:  In the next 25 years, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to double. Yet despite its prevalence, Alzheimer’s is still a disease we don’t fully understand. The Eternal Memory takes a profoundly intimate look inside the day to day moments of a marriage adapting as the disease progresses. In many ways, the film offers a blueprint for how to engage with and support a loved one facing cognitive decline. Yet at its heart, The Eternal Memory is a love story about what endures even when memory fades. From the Los Angeles Time’s Robert Abele, “What rings truest and richest about The Eternal Memory, as exquisitely humane a film as you’re likely to see all year, is what abiding love and stewardship look like in the moment: to care so deeply for someone as to tend to their memories, and to be loved so deeply.”  It’s a film that asks what happens when your love never dies, but your memory of that love starts to.   Where to stream The Eternal Memory: Paramount Plus

Four Daughters

oscars for best documentaryThe Story: Living in Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring, Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters are torn apart when two of them make a radical decision and leave the country.

The Relevancy: Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s work, while mostly based in fact, has often straddled fiction. Her 2017 fictional film, Beauty and the Dogs was based on the real-life story of a woman who was raped by several policemen and had to decide whether — and to whom — to report the case. Her latest documentary, Four Daughters, taps actresses to reenact scenes too traumatic for the subjects to depict. While reenactments aren’t new in documentaries, capturing the subjects as they reflect on them is new, and the film’s narrative technique offers a cathartic outlet for its subjects. It also raises bigger questions about stories and how they’re interpreted, including the stories that led to the two daughters disappearing.  Where to stream Four Daughters:  Available to rent on Apple TV + and Amazon 

oscars for best documentary20 Days in Mariupol

The Story: After the city of Mariupol is taken over by Russian forces, a group of Ukrainian journalists document the war’s atrocities. 

Why it’s relevant: The horrifying siege of Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city, didn’t happen that long ago (it lasted from February to May 2022). In the West, we saw the terror thanks to the filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, who shared videos from the scenes. 20 Days in Mariupol consists of all the footage he didn’t release: the graves upon graves, the pain on the faces of those whose loved ones were murdered, the looting, the senseless violence. We don’t often see the full scope of the atrocities of war, but Chernov and his courageous crew made sure to capture exactly what happened. The documentary feels especially timely as war escalates in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Chernov himself commented, “It (the invasion in Ukraine) feels like this was the beginning of World War III. It still kind of does.”

As difficult as it is to watch 20 Days in Mariupol, the film offers some light as it turns its cameras on the people who supported their neighbors: the firemen, the doctors, the everyday people who didn’t give up despite the destruction of their homes and families.  Where to stream it:  Available to rent on Amazon and YouTube

To Kill a Tiger

oscars for best documentaryThe Story:  An Indian farmer embarks on an unprecedented mission to demand justice for his 13-year-old daughter after she becomes the victim of a brutal gang rape.

Why it’s relevant: To Kill a Tiger reveals a sobering fact: every twenty minutes, a woman is raped, and 90% of those crimes go unreported. That’s what makes Ranjit’s mission remarkable: he sets out to have the men who raped his thirteen-year-old daughter prosecuted. As the film details, this act is especially rare, as typically cases like this are handled within villages and not in court. In these cases, Ranjit’s daughter would be forced to marry one of her attackers. But no matter how many death threats they receive, Ranjit and his daughter remain steadfast. The attitude that it’s the woman’s fault is not just prevalent in India—this perverse idea runs rampant globally. Consider how many rape cases in the states go unreported, and the current battle against women’s reproductive health. 

Streaming: Not currently streaming 

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