2021 Oscars Guide: Documentary Features : Pop Culture Happy Hour Corruption, loneliness, family, activism, and the adventures that take place in the ocean. The Oscar-nominated documentary features are about all these things, but not just these things. These films are shot in black and white and vivid underwater colors. Some trace long histories and some closely examine particular inflection points in time. And you can stream all the films on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon.
NPR logo

2021 Oscars Guide: Documentary Features

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/988150651/988700552" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
2021 Oscars Guide: Documentary Features

2021 Oscars Guide: Documentary Features

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/988150651/988700552" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Corruption, loneliness, family, activism and the adventures that take place in the ocean. The Oscar-nominated documentary features are about all these things but not just these things.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

These films are shot in black and white and vivid underwater colors. Some trace long histories, and some closely examine particular inflection points in time. And you can stream all the films on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I'm Aisha Harris.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, a guide to the Oscar-nominated documentary features. So don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back. It's just the two of us today. Let's get started. The good news about the documentary features this year is that they're all pretty easy to find. They are, as we mentioned, on Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. So it's a great year to be really caught up on what these films have to offer before we find out which one of them wins. We're going to go through these five nominees. We're going to start with "Time" by Garret Bradley, which is about this woman named Fox Rich. And she has six kids, six sons. She and her husband participated in a bank robbery when they were very young. Her husband has spent a lot of time in prison at the time that the movie starts. She spent time in prison and then eventually got out. And it's really about the effect of incarceration on her and her husband and this family that they have. She's trying to keep the family going. She's trying to also fight for him to be released from prison. Aisha, what did you feel about this movie?

HARRIS: Well, this is one of my favorite movies, period, of last year. And I think one of the things that makes it so astounding - and I think this is also one of the more inventive documentaries we see here, especially aesthetically and creatively. And what I really liked about it is that it benefits from this era that we are living in where a lot of documentaries that are coming out really benefit from having all of this plethora of footage and of people who are filming themselves doing things. This movie spans over 20 years of footage that was filmed by Fox Rich herself. And she was doing this on her camcorder in order to connect with her husband so that when he finally does come out, whenever that would happen, that he would have a document of, like, their daily lives, of his children growing up, of her getting older. And it's a really lovely, you know, contrast between the then and now to see how, like, so many of her personality traits are very present in those early days. And she's very fierce. She is very persistent.

And one of my favorite moments from the movie actually comes from the present day, when Garrett Bradley is filming her. And the way in which so much of her time is spent on the phone trying to get in touch with the judge who might be able to help her husband get out early. And there's one moment where she's on the phone, and she's talking to the secretary. And, like, a full 30 to 45 seconds goes by where she's just on hold. And then the person picks up again, and they're like, yeah, I'm sorry. Like, I'm checking in on this now. I'll get back to you in a second. And then she's on hold again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: Sibil.

FOX RICH: Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: He said he has not heard anything. And as soon as he does hear something, he will definitely let you know.

RICH: Yeah, I just know the judge he'll see in two days, I guess, maybe changed his mind and took a little bit longer, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: Judge is a - no, I don't mean intentionally, but...

RICH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: ...I'm sure he intended, you know?

RICH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: But I guess like everybody else, you never know what's going to come up.

RICH: Yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: Everyone has dealt with customer service. We know how these things go. It's frustrating. But when you're talking about customer service, when it comes to a life and the amount of time lost, I just think it's such a beautiful and heartbreaking way to render, like, this very sort of ostensibly mundane action and how consequential it is for her and for her family.

HOLMES: I felt like, watching this, there are two things that I admired about it particularly. One is that I noticed my own desire for more information about the backstory - right? - my own desire for kind of what happened. How did they get caught doing this bank robbery? They mentioned at one point that she wound up taking a plea bargain, and he didn't. And that's why his sentence was so much longer. And I sit there, and I think, why did he not take the plea bargain? If they both acknowledge that they're guilty, why was he not wanting to take a plea?

It really pushes you to get that sort of out of your mind because the purpose of this film is not to be a kind of true crime exoneration, he-didn't-really-do-it movie. It's about, how do we talk about incarceration and the separation of families and what punishment is - you know, what sanction is appropriate? The point is the family. The point is her experience, her sons' experiences. And it pushes against your expectations. And I think any documentary that does that is doing a good job. Also, the other thing I admire so much about it - it's a great demonstration of, yes, she feels at times that individual people are being unsympathetic to her, but it's more the role of this entire system as a whole. I agree with you. It's a terrific movie. This one is on Amazon Prime Video. Do check that one out. And as Aisha said, she's talked about this as one of her favorite movies of 2020.

The next one is over on Netflix. It's called "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution." It's directed by Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht. This is about a summer camp for kids with - really, teenagers - with disabilities. And it follows them in the - kind of the 19 - mostly the '60s and '70s, I would say, and then through to how a lot of them became disability activists all the way up through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and beyond. I really liked this one, too. This is another one - I don't think we mentioned "Time" is entirely in black and white. A lot of this film is also in black and white when you're looking at the archival footage 'cause, obviously, there were a lot of home movies of camp. What did you think of this one, Aisha?

HARRIS: I really liked it. And I think one of the benefits of this film is the way in which it starts off as, like, oh, we had a great time at camp, and this was a place we could all be ourselves and be free. But then they're like, well, actually, this is also where I gained my, like, activism and my revolutionary nature. And, you know, at one point, one of the campers talks about how this was where they found themselves, and they realized that like, OK, I don't want this just to be like a once a summer, once every few months sort of thing. My life should be like this all the time. I should be able to use the bathroom wherever I go if I'm in a public space. I should be able to go someplace and not be deemed a fire hazard, as Judy Heumann, who is one of the main focal points of this film - she was responsible for founding Disabled in Action, an organization. She's worked under both Clinton and Obama for disability rights. And, you know, she mentioned how as a child who had polio and was - had to use a wheelchair, her parents were told that she couldn't attend the school, the public school, because she was deemed a fire hazard. So hearing those stories and hearing the way this camp was really like a launching-off point for this this really powerful movement, I think, is part of what makes this such a sneakily revolutionary sort of documentary. It's not just all, like, fun and games.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree. I think they do a great job of drawing the connection between the time they spent in the beginning of the movie establishing that this was a place where teenagers with disabilities could be teenagers, right? The connection that they draw between the importance of being able to be a horny teenager, doing horny teenager things and the ability to develop your individuality and later become an activist - it's such an interesting study to me. And at the beginning, I sort of thought, yeah, this is nice. This is a nostalgia piece where people kind of talk about how much I appreciated camp. And then I really liked sort of how it shifts over into, as you mentioned, particularly Judy Heumann's activism as an adult and how it all ties back to that, the importance of that community. I just think it's such a smart way into talking about communities and how important they are for people who are going to become activists later. You know, not that all of them became activists. But, you know, if you're going to, you got to be able to be a horny teenager first.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Yes. So that, again, is called "Crip Camp." It is streaming on Netflix. Netflix is also the home for a very, very, very different movie called "My Octopus Teacher." This is directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich. And in this one, a guy who is a sort of a wildlife photographer type goes through kind of unspecified difficulties in his life, I felt, and winds up at some kind of point of major personal crisis and then develops a bond with an octopus that he swims with around the Cape of Storms at the tip of Africa. You follow him. There's a lot of underwater photography, but he also has a lot to say about kind of how his bond with this octopus taught him about being a human and things like that. I had some interesting responses to this one. I mean, I had some questions about this one. What did you think about this one, Aisha?

HARRIS: Well, you sort of hinted at it just now in your description. I think for me, the parts when I was, like, least invested was when he tried to tie this to, like, the greater human condition (laughter) and without, you know, like specifying what exactly he was going through. There's hints that it had to do with his family and that he was sort of, like, estranged from his son, his, like, teenage son, and that his new love of this and being able to show his son this world, this underwater world kind of helped them bond. It felt kind of like, OK, we have to create a narrative. Like, this is what we do. What I loved the most was when it was just him and the octopus.

HOLMES: Yup.

HARRIS: If you love nature movies, whether it's, you know, "Planet Earth" or any of those types of things but with a slightly more human or personal function, I think this will really appeal to you because it's great to see him develop this bond with her and earn her trust. And also, like, there's just a really great segment where he's watching her defend herself against some predators, and the whole process is just - it shows you how smart an octopus is and in terms of defending itself and knowing what to do, whether it's camouflaging or whatever. But then he also struggles with, OK, do I watch this happen or do I attempt to step in? And I think that sort of tension is where it really worked for me, just seeing, like, OK, nature versus, you know, inserting myself into this situation.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree with you. I loved this when it was a documentary about an octopus. Like, when it was sort of octopus behavior, isn't it interesting? But when they tried to bring him more and more into it, and particularly when they tried to make it about, like he was learning things about himself, and that was where I sort of pulled back from it because he's clearly making some efforts not to be accused of anthropomorphizing this octopus. Like, he's clearly trying to explain, no, I knew this was a wild animal and I treated her as such. But there's also a kind of like a - and when I was out there, I realized that she was wanting me to, you know - it just feels a little bit - like, it does kind of get into that area of discomfort for me at some points. And I did have a couple of points where I was like, they really want you to pay attention to this idea that, like, he and the octopus are bonding in this moment of solitude. But clearly, there's someone else filming. And I was like - I kept thinking, like, what exactly - some of it, I think, he set up some cameras that were elsewhere. But I think for some of it, it certainly looked to me like there would be someone else filming. And I thought there's more going on here than meets the eye.

HARRIS: And I have that question, too. Yeah.

HOLMES: I was kind of getting pulled out of it. But I will say this - if you like an octopus movie, this is one, and it's a good one, and I have never seen such good octopus footage in my life. I enjoyed it very much. And your local underwater animal liker will definitely love this one.

Out of the water and into a senior living situation, a movie called "The Mole Agent" directed by Maita Alberdi. This is about a guy named Sergio who is recruited. He's 83 years old and he's recruited by a P.I. who is working for a woman who wants to check in on her mother, who is in this care facility in Chile. And the woman kind of wants to know whether the facility is clean. Is she fed? Are they kind to her? Do they hit people? He sends this man in there to live as kind of an undercover elderly man in this place with a little camera pen. I basically liked this movie. What did you think?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I thought there were moments where it felt kind of twee and...

HOLMES: A little cute.

HARRIS: Yeah. It's a little cute at times. But I think this is another film that you start off thinking it's one thing, and then it turns out to be another. And the director, Alberdi, talked about how she really wanted to play with the form of documentary. So it's a documentary, but they have also been forthcoming about sort of the ways in which they took some liberties in some ways. There's an interview with the director where she talked about how she basically convinced the investigator in the film to choose Sergio because she felt like he was the perfect one to - he just had the right personality and everything they were looking for. And, look, Sergio, you really couldn't ask for a better protagonist. It's like...

HOLMES: Well, there's the point in the movie where the residents make him, like, something like prom king or something. I sort of thought...

HARRIS: Well - because for the first, like, half an hour or so, I was like, is he the only man in this entire senior facility? And apparently, the women far outnumber the men at this facility. Even more so than that, I think what's really sad but also touching in a way is about how Sergio kind of abandons the task at hand once he finds the woman he's looking for and just starts to talk with all these people. And it made me really sad because it does really highlight the way in which these people haven't just been, like, left at a nursing home but in some ways could be considered abandoned because they don't have - even if they have living family, they don't have constant talks with them. They're not calling. They're not visiting. And so they all feel really lonely. And I think it really gets at the essence of the loneliness that, you know, senior citizens feel and can feel in the way in which we take care of our elders.

HOLMES: Right. And I think you're exactly right that it's similar to "Crip Camp." This is a film that kind of starts out looking like it's going to be about one social problem, basically - are nursing homes abusive and dangerous? - and things like that. It winds up being about something really different.

I agree with you that there are a couple places where I thought, again, as with the octopus, where I thought there's something else going on here in the filming of this besides kind of what they are presenting as the story of how it's being filmed. But I took a while to warm up to this one. I felt like I kind of had to get through the first kind of half hour or so and settle in a little bit more, get past the tone, those parts that are, as you said, a little cute. Then I kind of got into it. I did like that one. Again, that's called "The Mole Agent," and it's streaming on Hulu. You can also rent it or buy it.

The last one is a film that I talked about once before, so I'm not going to say too much more about it. It's called "Collective." It's directed by Alexander Nanau. It is about the investigation of corruption that happened after a horrifying nightclub fire in Romania. And the nightclub was called Collective. That's where the title comes from. And they wound up investigating government and medical corruption. I had seen this quite a while ago in Toronto. Aisha, what did you think of this one?

HARRIS: As someone who really enjoys sort of investigative journalism stories, I think if you like that, you will really like this because I guess this is a theme, a common theme. But again, it's like it starts off. You think it's going to be one thing, and then it is - there's a whole other underbelly that is bubbling over. And so the fact that, you know, part of it is that there is that fire. But then 37 more people died after surviving the fire within 12 days or so of the fire happening.

And it turns into, OK, there is some corruption going on here. The hospitals are diluting the antibacterials or the medicine that they're supposed to be taking. And it's just really, really fascinating to watch this sports journalism outlet take on the investigative pieces. And it appears that, you know, as one of the reporters who is sort of the focus and leads the charge on this, Catalin Tolontan - he's talked about in interviews how part of the reason they're even able to do that type of story is because of their sports. So people read them for the sports, and then he would put, like, the investigative pieces on the back of the paper.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: So the idea that, like the sports were funding this is just not surprising...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...The state of journalism as it is. And again, if you love anything like "Spotlight" or "All The President's Men," this is a really good movie for you.

HOLMES: Yeah, it's a really good hero journalist movie, even though I think there are a lot of other things going on in it, as well. As you mentioned, these reporters from the Sports Gazette in Romania - you know, I also read that they had some experience because they had investigated large-scale corruption in sports because of how corrupt a lot of sports organizations were. And they had investigated that. I think it's such a fascinating movie. Again, I've recommended this film a couple times. It's - in addition to being nominated for - in documentary feature, it's also nominated in best international feature film, a rare kind of twofer for a documentary. It is streaming on Hulu. You can rent it or buy it. Aisha, which of them do you think is going to actually win the Oscar? Do you have a prediction?

HARRIS: That's a good question. I feel like "Crip Camp" feels like the most Oscar-y winner just because you have - the Obamas were one of the producers of the film. I feel like a lot of times, the documentaries can sometimes be, like, the more flashier version of these things. And also, it's just - it is a conversation that is kind of at the forefront of the cultural - the larger cultural conversations we're having right now. So it feels very timely. So I would say "Crip Camp" and maybe "Time." Like, those are the two that I think are like the most likely.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think it could definitely be "Time." I definitely think the Obama factor does weigh in favor of "Crip Camp." I think, you know, because it's one of the projects they produced for Netflix, I definitely think that is a possibility. I also think "Collective" is a possibility because it has that double nomination and because people, I think, have been sort of admiring that one for the longest. But I'm going to go out on a limb, and I'm going to say I think it's going to be "Time." But any of them are probably deserving.

And we want to know what you think about these five documentary nominees. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @pchh. If you want more Oscars coverage, stay tuned all week. And on Friday, we'll have our big Oscars preview. We'll predict who we think will win in the major categories. Aisha, as always, it's a delight to talk to you.

HOLMES: Same to you, Linda.

HARRIS: And one last thing before we go. We're going to be talking about - what? - "The Nanny," and we want your questions. You can email a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, email us a voice memo with your question about "The Nanny." I'm not going to sing the theme song right now, but I could. Send us that voice memo at pchh@npr.org. We will see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.