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Your Guide to the Nominated Documentaries

All about the five Oscar nominated documentarians and the impactful subject matter tackled in their films.
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All from the Everett Collection.

Though it might have been easy to miss amid a certain pink-hued outcry, this year’s Oscar nominees for best documentary feature went through their own round of controversy when the nominations were announced on January 23. With films about starry subjects like Michael J. Fox and Jon Batiste left out in favor of an entirely international slate of projects, some people in the documentary world fretted that the Oscar lineup would make viewers start ignoring documentaries entirely: “So many of us have worked so hard to make great films that break out of the little ghetto documentaries used to be kept in for so long. While I love many of these films, as a group they put us right back in that ghetto.”

But what that anonymous documentary producer and many other viewers have ignored is the sheer power of these five nominees, with stories ranging from love in the face of a terminal illness to a fight against a 40-year dictatorship. For anyone looking to catch up on this category ahead of next week’s Academy Awards ceremony (and possibly to help with any Oscar pool picks), here is a guide to the five worthwhile and highly topical films, and where to watch them.

By PBS/Everett Collection.

20 Days in Mariupol

Director: Mstyslav Chernov

Mstyslav Chernov’s first feature film is a heart-wrenching look inside the first 20 days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022. Chernov is an award-winning Ukrainian video journalist who, together with a courageous group of journalists and fellow countrymen trapped in Mariupol, produced daily news dispatches and personal footage of their own country at war for the Associated Press. “We had no idea if we would make it out alive,” Chernov said in his director’s statement about the film. “We were the last journalists in Mariupol. Now there are none.” In addition to the Oscar nomination, a DGA for outstanding directorial achievement in a documentary, and many other honors, Chernov’s reporting in Mariupol earned the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The film’s most harrowing scenes also helped alert the world to the ongoing atrocities of the Russian invasion. On the day Chernov was awarded the DGA he announced to the audience that his hometown of Kharkiv was now under attack. “Today my hometown was bombed, seven people were killed, three of them children.…So it’s a sad day,” he said, but added that “the power of cinema” can still be a balm for those in peril, “because when these children, people, run from the bombs, they sit in a basement and to cope with their fear, they watch films.”

Where to watch:

By Lookman Kampala.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

Director: Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo

Capturing a seven-year, unpredictable labor of love and political rebellion, Bobi Wine is directed by Ugandans Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo. The project follows the efforts of music star-turned-activist and opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, stage name Bobi Wine, in his fight for their home country’s freedom from President Museveni’s oppressive 38-year dictatorship.

The filmmakers initially thought the film would be an uplifting story about a socially conscious musician, but as Bobi Wine’s popularity and political influence grew, so did a series of brutal attacks on and violence against everyone in his circle. “We weren’t able to include most of the horrific violence we witnessed,” Sharp and Bwayo said. “We didn’t include the numerous torture victims we interviewed.”

Despite his own imprisonment and torture for what Amnesty International called “fabricated treason charges,” Bobi Wine continues to lead the National Unity Platform, the largest political opposition party in Uganda, and has become the main opposition leader to President Museveni’s rule. The filmmakers hope Bobi Wine encourages audiences everywhere to “question their own government’s financing of dictatorial regimes.”

Where to watch:

From MTV/Everett Collection.

The Eternal Memory

Director: Maite Alberdi 

Perhaps the least distressing of the five nominated films is also the most loving. Eternal Memory is a deeply affecting portrayal of a beloved couple in Chile, journalist Augusto Góngora and actress Paulina Urrutia. Filmed over four years and during the pandemic, Eternal Memory is above all a love story, from Góngora and Urrutia’s early days as working professionals in their native Chile to their last few years together, following Góngora’s diagnosis and battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alberdi is the first Chilean woman to be nominated for an Oscar. She considers the film a “living scrapbook” of the loving couple and hopes it brings comfort to people struggling with the fear of losing a loved one or to Alzheimer’s. “The Eternal Memory is above all a love story, how love is lived in fragility, how to be a couple when there is no longer a complete memory,” she said. “I would like us to think about how to integrate people who are usually isolated.”

Where to watch:

From Kino International/ Everett Collection.

Four Daughters

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania

Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania has now made history as the first Arab woman to have two Oscar nominations. Her first was in 2021 for the narrative international feature, The Man Who Sold His Skin. Ben Hania’s latest, Four Daughters, the most uniquely formatted of the doc nominees in that it is billed as a “fictional documentary.” The film explores the story of Tunisia’s Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters, from Hamrouni’s younger years and first marriage to complicated family and cultural dynamics in the Middle East, up through how and when her two oldest daughters became radicalized by extremists and ran away to join ISIS. Four Daughters has the highest grossing theatrical run of this year’s nominees.

Ben Hania was intrigued by Hamrouni’s story after seeing her anguished pleas on the news for her daughters to return home. After meeting Hamrouni, she decided to tell the story with a combination of documentary-style footage and interviews, along with reenactments with hired actors to play the two oldest daughters and Hamrouni, who is portrayed by Tunisian/Egyptian star Hind Sabri. “I needed an actor to question her, to help her to understand some of the major events in her life,” says Ben Hania. “I think the film was good for them [Hamrouni and her two youngest daughters] as well. It served as a therapeutic experience for them. They gave a lot and I think I can say that they received a lot in return.”

Where to watch:

From National Film Board of Canada/Everett Collection.

To Kill a Tiger

Director: Nisha Pahuja

Nisha Pahuja’s To Kill a Tiger was born out of a very different project. Roughly eight years ago, Indian-born, Canadian filmmaker Pahuja and her team set out to explore the more restrictive, traditional gender roles in India by following an activist working with men and boys to change their ideas on gender. While doing so they discovered the heartbreaking story of one of those men, Ranjit, whose 13-year-old daughter was raped by three older boys in their village after a family gathering. Against the entire village’s wishes and ongoing pressure to drop the subject, Ranjit decides to seek justice for his daughter.

“In India, where a rape is reported every 20 minutes and conviction rates are less than 30%, Ranjit’s decision to support his daughter is virtually unheard of,” said Pahuja. The daughter is also now over the age of 18 and consented to be seen in the film, “in the hope that her story will help other girls and families in similar situations.” The film has been warmly embraced and amplified by several impactful organizations like Equality Now, who came aboard as their impact partner, along with SAKHI for South Asian Women and SOAR as community partners.

Pahuja is overwhelmed by the support thus far. “The film has been nominated for an Oscar outside any kind of traditional distribution and marketing ecosystem,” she said. “That we got as far as we did was because of a tremendous group of women who have been working 24/7 for months and the backers and believers and champions who have been supporting us. [We] are here because of our belief in what this film can do.”

Where to watch:

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