The 2020 nominees for the Oscar for Best Documentary cover a wide range of subjects, from the injustices of incarceration to the blooming friendship between a man and an octopus. Here are the contenders.
Time (Amazon Prime). On September 16, 1997, Robert G. Richardson and his wife Sibil Fox, co-owners of a now-defunct hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, La., Committed an armed robbery of a Louisiana credit union and inadvertently launched a lengthy and painful battle against the state’s criminal justice system. Richardson’s wife, nicknamed Fox Rich, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for driving her husband to the bank, but she accepted a plea deal that cut her time behind bars. (She served a total of three and a half years.) Her husband Rob turned down a deal and received an undoubtedly excessive, devastating sentence: 60 years in Louisiana State Prison.
Garrett Bradley’s formally daring and surprisingly personal film “Time” was shot in black and white with mostly handheld cameras and follows Fox Rich as she seeks her husband’s release while raising three sons alone. Sometimes it is reminiscent of the low-budget aesthetic that influenced “Killer of Sheep” – Charles Burnett’s enchanting portrait of Watts, Los Angeles, in the late 1970s. “Time” is interspersed with grainy VHS-quality footage taken from 100 hours of Richardson family home videos.
“Time” is not a solid, trampling hole that resembles a college ethics lecture.
While the film asks difficult questions about the widespread incarceration and extreme condemnation of black citizens in the United States, Time is not a solid, trampling affair resembling a college ethics class. The film, accompanied by a jazzy piano score, moves freely between the past and the present to illustrate the emptiness that Rob’s imprisonment has left in the life of a family that, after 20 years, refuses to abandon hope to world-weary cynicism.
“Time” is aptly named as the film certainly benefits from the highly charged climate in which it premiered, a time of racial reckoning in America sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd and the repeated use of force by law enforcement agencies . Without resorting to Maudlinic sentimentality or a pink fantasy about racial relations in the United States, Bradley’s film concludes with the hopeful note that the long arc of the moral universe could really lean towards justice – at least given the unwavering resilience of Fox Reich.
Collective (Hulu). One of the great investigative journalism films, Collective, the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Oscar, is a dazzling and often annoying exposé of rampant corruption and criminal government failure in the Romanian hospital system. Directed by Alexander Nanau, the film puts viewers at the disposal of a group of sports journalists, led by Catalin Tolontan, who are investigating the deaths of nearly 40 hospital burn victims in the days following the fire at the Colectiv nightclub in 2015.
The investigation concludes that over 2,000 Romanian hospitals knowingly used highly diluted disinfectants, which allowed deadly pyocyanic bacteria to grow and put the lives of patients injured in the Bucharest fire at risk. Some disinfectants have been diluted up to 10 times more than recommended. It was also revealed that between 2011 and 2016, the Romanian Secret Service sent 115 pieces of information about hospital infections and low-quality biocides to various government officials.
“Collective” is a stunning and often annoying exposé about the widespread corruption of the government in the Romanian hospital system.
Until May 2016, the hospital infection rate in Romania was the highest in the European Union, with an estimated death toll of at least 12,000 per year. The death rate in the intensive care unit rose to 90 percent.
In Collective, the Romanian government faces a growing crisis as press reports exposed a hospital system held hostage by bribery, forged certificates and political influence. The results lead to mass crimes and the resignation of Health Minister Patriciu Achimas-Cadariu. “The best exams are done by a sport every day!” shouts a protester during a protest against government corruption. “This is the status of our press!”
“Collective” is an invaluable portrait of good journalism in action and plays like a slow-burning thriller in which every minute reveals a disturbing truth. Tolontan, the film’s lead journalist, is an unlikely hero – a humble, middle-aged reporter who spends hours daily at a crowded desk littered with loose papers, headphones, and an icon of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus. “You have encountered a nest of unscrupulous gangsters,” warns an intelligence officer Tolontan. But he and his team of reporters are not deterred by such vague threats.
The Mole Agent (Hulu). An unlikely reinterpretation of the espionage film genre, “The Mole Agent” replaces veteran intelligence officer George Smiley with Sergio Chamy, an 83-year-old Chilean widower with no espionage experience and little technological skills. (For example, he doesn’t know how to use FaceTime.) After Chamy replied to a newspaper ad looking for older men, a private investigator selected him to pose as a new resident of a nursing home in the El Monte district of Santiago. The mission? Investigating signs of negligence or abuse at home, particularly regarding Sonia Perez, whose daughter claims to have been a victim of abuse.
Seeking a diversion from his wife’s death, Chamy is an avid participant in this bizarre undercover operation. The customized Chamy is going to be a huge hit in the nursing home because what he lacks in investigative experience he makes up for with natural charm. Women like him because he looks “gentlemanly” and “clear”; A particularly energetic resident falls in love with him and dreams of marriage. In a short time, Chamy’s daily reports to Romulo, the private eye, begin to diverge from exploring Sonia Perez’s treatment into sprawling diary entries about life (and food) at home. “I was elected king of the nursing home,” says Chamy in a report.
“The Mole Agent” prepares you for one thing and instead delivers something much more life-affirming and even joyful.
Directed by Maite Alberdi, The Mole Agent prepares you for one cause – an investigation into elder abuse in a South American nursing home – and instead delivers something far more affirming and even joyful. Chamy finds no evidence of abuse in the apartment, but notices his strong sense of community in the face of the great loneliness that many residents suffer from. “Loneliness is the worst thing about this place,” says Chamy.
Quirky and adorable, The Mole Agent is less like a documentary and more like a narrative image in which Chamy’s burgeoning relationships with people who are often forgotten or ignored form the emotional core of the film.
Crip Camp: A Revolution for the Disabled (Netflix). A look at the beginning of the disability rights movement that led to the passage of national accessibility laws, “Crip Camp,” produced by former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, brings to light the untold story of Camp Jened in the 1970s . The now-defunct camp, once located in the Catskills Mountains of southeast New York and run by hippie counselors, offered disabled adults a summer vacation and the rare opportunity to develop relationships (both platonic and sometimes sexual) with fellow campers. It preserves an August legacy as a utopian stepping stone to modern disability activism.
“Crip Camp” is often disrespectful, occasionally cheeky and absolutely life-affirming.
As the title shows, “Crip Camp” directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht is often disrespectful, occasionally cheeky and extremely life-affirming. The film features several ex-Jenedians, including LeBrecht and the Obama administration’s special adviser Judith E. Heumann, and their founding of Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York, a civil rights group that hosted numerous nonviolent protests that helped get the 1990 passed the Disabled Americans Act.
At the heart of the film is a 1977 sit-in in which more than 100 disabled activists occupy the San Francisco offices of the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare for 25 consecutive days. The action urges then-HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. to sign regulations banning discrimination against the disabled, enforcing the provisions of the Nixon-era Rehabilitation Act. A strong contender for Best Documentary of the Year, Crip Camp brings to the fore a little-known story of perseverance and hard-won victories for disabled Americans.
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix). It is not often that one comes across a deeply moving 85-minute portrait of the enduring bond between a South African naturalist and a common squid. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, “My Octopus Teacher” accompanies filmmaker and skin diving enthusiast Craig Foster on his journey of discovery through an underwater kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The film is a showcase for the stunningly clear underwater photography that David Attenborough nature documents give a run for their money.
After Foster fixates herself on the daily life of a female octopus, she visits her every day for a year until she later dies – a strangely influencing moment captured on camera and blurring the line between humans and animals. As Foster’s fondness for his octopus friend grows, so does the viewer, who may be surprised to find that he is fully invested in the welfare of an invertebrate mollusk.
But it is Foster’s deep respect for the natural world – from exotic deep-sea flora to predatory pajama sharks – that is ultimately contagious and a timely appeal to protect what Pope Francis calls “our common home.”
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