The directors of all five Oscar-nominated documentaries gathered recently for The Hollywood Reporter’s A Seat at the Tablea lively conversation about how they got their cameras into tricky spaces, why they fought to tell certain stories before it was too late and how they’re navigating the evolving business of nonfiction film.
Jessica Kingdon (Ascension), Stanley Nelson (Attica), Jonas Poher Rasmussen (flee), Rintu Thomas (Writing with Fire) and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Summer of Soul) spoke by Zoom on March 5 in the conversation moderated by THR’s Rebecca Keegan.
“I realized that it was now or never,” Nelson said, explaining why after years of contemplating a movie about the 1971 Attica prison rebellion he finally tackled the story. “It was maybe 48 years after the rebellion at Attica that happened in ’71, and the people were getting old. And if I didn’t get them real soon, they would start disappearing, and their memories would start fading.”
Timing played a key role for Thompson as well, in part because of how the events of 2020, in particular the civil rights protests that exploded globally, slow a new sense of currency to the issues inspiring the concertgoers in Summer of Soul, who are attending the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. “I got this project in late 2017, early 2018,” Thompson said. “So I knew that I had a certain key audience that would be all in, which of course is Baby Boomers and maybe Generation X. I was slightly concerned that what I was talking about wouldn’t hit latter-half Millennials or Gen Z. And then a funny thing happened in 2020, which is basically the footage we were editing was mirroring exactly what was happening on the news at that moment. And so suddenly Gen Z was living in the time period, and the same exact actions were happening. It’s weird how three years ago, I don’t think this movie would’ve resonated as much as it does right now.”
For Thomas, whose film is about a newspaper run by women in India, making Writing With Fire was a four-year process, during which she and her small crew followed the intrepid newswomen into police stations, mines and rural settings rarely caught on camera. Getting into those spaces, Thomas said she relied on “a bit of a borrowed swag from the ladies themselves. If they went in, we went in, unless they said, ‘It’s good that you don’t come along.’ Generally just keeping the vibe really cool and easy.”
When it came to telling their stories, the filmmakers relied on different tools. Much of Kingdon’s film is set inside Chinese industrial settings. “These are factories and where there’s a lot of dehumanizing labor happening,” Kingdon said. “I wanted to be able to balance that with having as much first-person sensory feelings as we could. One of my favorite scenes is this young woman at a plastic water bottle factory, where she’s placing labels onto plastic water bottles. And we mic’d her from her, even though she was n’t standing with anyone. There’s this moment where she pauses to take a sip of a thermos of water that she brings to work for herself, which I found supremely ironic, of course — somebody who’s working at a plastic water bottle factory bringing their own thermos. And she unscrewed the lid to take a sip and then screws it back on. There’s this metal sound of her unscrewing the lid that later on when reviewing the footage, I heard and loved it. It’s not something that I would ever be able to like think to foley in later — it was just because we happened to have that first-person audio that I think that really gave us this sort of intimacy into her world as she’s working and taking a break.”
Rasmussen relied on animation to help express the emotional beats of flee, the story of a gay man named Amin who fled from Afghanistan to Denmark as a child. “It’s a story of solitude, of feeling lonely, of keeping secrets and feeling that you have to keep people at a distance because you can’t be honest to who you are,” Rasmussen said. “And we wanted to feel this in the style of animation.”
Though the movies vary wildly in craft and approach, they share something in their choice of subject. “Each of these films is about lives that would typically be made invisible,” said Thomas. “For me, storytelling is really about that, about finding a reality that’s not necessarily my own, but finding a part of me there. And then the circle just keeps expanding, and then my story, their story, becomes our story. And that’s what I find absolutely exciting, dynamic about nonfiction filmmaking.”