In the age of streaming, documentary filmmakers, once the long-suffering artists working in the dark to finish exciting self-funded projects, have become rock stars. Big-money platforms like Netflix and Hulu have doled out expensive archival releases and biographical rights, and the strategy has invariably led to awards glory.
But just as the medium has become more elevated, it has also become increasingly global in scope, with a vast network of documentary curators venturing outside of the traditional nonfiction markets of the US and Western Europe. for the next big project that can go far to become an award contender.
“We’re getting closer together in a good way,” says Rick Perez, the newly installed president of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association. The former Sundance documentary executive acknowledges the influence of streamers, but says the rise of nonfiction is mostly the result of decades of work by independents like global broadcasters and various institutes and funds coming together in forums and markets around the world. world.
“Now there is more fluidity between the US documentary industry and the commercial sector and these very powerful international stories,” Pérez says. “Part of what’s going on is that documentaries are some of the best stories in cinema, period. So some of these films from other countries are exactly that.”
The last two years have been revolutionary. In 2020, “Honeyland,” a superbly shot film about an eccentric Macedonian beekeeper living in a remote mountain village struggling to protect her livelihood, became the first documentary to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature. Although it didn’t win in either category, the consideration of double awards was a major breakthrough that helped Romanian investigative documentary “Collective” garner the same nominations in 2021, while Chile’s “Agent topo” was nominated that year. year in the documentary category and shortlisted for best international documentary. characteristic.
This year, Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary “Flee” has already broken another record, becoming the first film in history to be eligible in the animation, documentary and international Oscar categories. (He recently made the documentary and the international preselected).
The film’s impressive track record in the Oscar race thus far contrasts sharply with the only international feature nomination 14 years ago for the Israeli animated war documentary “Waltz With Bashir” (2008), which illustrated the experiences of director Ari Folman as a soldier during the war. 1982 Lebanon War.
An awards strategist, who could only speak anonymously, credits the rapidly changing makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the proliferation of crossover documentary titles. “Since ‘Waltz With Bashir’, the Academy has become younger and has become more international,” they say. Variety. “It’s a much bigger, more diverse and more open Academy.”
It is believed that more than 30% of the AMPAS documentary branch is based outside the US, a revealing number of votes. “It is possible that you will be nominated only with the support of international voters,” says the source.
However, the journey for most overseas documentary filmmakers begins in the US at Sundance, which has become synonymous with documentary over the past decade.
“For international documentaries, Sundance is probably the festival where you get the most coverage, or where you’ll have a great launching pad to elevate your story, really shed light on the themes of your documentary and spread it to Americans. audience,” says Simon Lereng Wilmont, whose film “A House Made of Splinters,” which follows a children’s home in eastern Ukraine, is screening in the festival’s world cinema documentary competition.
The Danish director’s previous film, “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” premiered in 2017 at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, better known as IDFA, and was a documentary finalist for the 2019 Oscars. But Lereng Wilmont says that he and producer Monica Hellström, who also produced “Flee”, were not well aware of the machinations of the awards campaign at the time.
“We could handle Europe, but that was the first time we were really going to the US and meeting the industry,” he says. Variety. “We didn’t have a publicist until maybe a month or two before the nominations were announced, and we had some money from the Danish Film Institute to do some sort of campaign, but we actually knew almost from the start that it would be very, very difficult. make the movie stand out.”
Lereng Wilmont says his “dream” for “A House Made of Splinters” (pictured) was to make the cut for Sundance. “There are big festivals in Europe and you can do the European tour, but for going out in the US, Sundance is probably one of the best out there.”
The festival’s virtual pivot this year dealt a blow to the independent community, for whom the right gatherings and screenings in the bitter cold of Park City can jumpstart a career virtually overnight. But directors like Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh say that even a digital release through Sundance can attract the right amount of attention.
The New Delhi-based filmmakers premiered their film “Writing With Fire” at the World Documentary Film Competition last year, reaching around 10,000 virtual audience members and scooping the Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. . The Autlook Filmsales-distributed film about an Indian guerrilla newspaper run by low-caste Dalit women wowed critics and garnered more than 20 awards throughout the year. It is now the first Indian documentary feature film to be shortlisted for an Oscar, as part of the documentary race.
“There is a moment of reckoning that is happening throughout the documentary world,” says Thomas. “People in decision-making positions are people who look and have accents like us, and that has a big influence on the type of projects they pursue. [in terms of] the diversity of voices and the authenticity of who tells the story”.
Ghosh says that compared to international document producers in North America or Europe, directors in the global South need to “run a marathon and a mile just to get to the starting line.”
“It starts from the beginning, from who is going to finance your film because [no one] you have the systems in place to support you, right down to having to constantly prove yourself and the merit of your storytelling because there are certain expectations or cultural expectations,” says Ghosh.
Most of India’s documentaries considered successful have been largely directed by white directors, he adds.
“When we watch those movies, it’s like, ‘Hey, you just stripped our characters of all dignity and grace.’ These are not necessarily ‘our people’, and there is a certain grace, even in poverty, and where is that? Why not? [they] shedding a light on that?
Ghosh acknowledges that India has a long way to go before presenting a documentary as its entry into the race for the best international film Oscar, but films like “Honeyland” and “Mole Agent” have “essentially led to this new generative conversation: documentaries are movies. ”
While one awards strategist notes that the prospect of a best documentary film nominee “is getting closer and closer,” IDA’s Pérez says that the fact that it hasn’t happened yet despite the huge appetite for documentary in culture popular is a telltale sign: Perhaps it’s America’s own framework of what comprises an award-worthy film that is falling behind the rest of the world.
“The world is presenting some of the best stories on film that they have, and those films happen to be documentaries. It says something about how the world sees the documentary,” says Pérez. “What does it say that American documentaries aren’t on the Oscars list for best picture?”