Ranking the Best Documentary Feature Nominees (Academy Awards 2022)
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
I was lucky enough to catch most of the Academy Awards nominations for Best Documentary Feature at festivals throughout the year. 2021 was a very strong year for documentaries, and there were more than a couple of films that I was shocked didn’t make the final group of nominees, particularly Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s follow-up to their 2018 Oscar-winning film Free Solo, The Rescue.
Although The Rescue is undoubtedly one of the most accessible and captivating documentaries to be released last year, the Academy elected to make some bolder choices in their 2022 selection. Two of the movies are international, and one employs almost exclusively ambient sound. All of the movies handle interesting subject matters, and, in their own ways, prove culturally resonant. Let’s take a look at the nominees.
dir. Jessica Kingdon
Ascension first debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021 where it won the festival award for Best Documentary. Of all the nominees, it is easily the most polarizing. Relying on long, dialogue-less still shots of the Chinese economy at work, the film’s tactic is hypnotism: the juxtaposition of ambient, fly-on-the-wall realities of the Chinese workplace and lifestyle, enveloping the viewer into a passive state. By saying nothing, it says everything.
Filmmaker Jessica Kingdon shows the incessant coordination required of productivity, whereby the person briefly sheds their identity to become a worker. It’s not a film that you turn on to learn something; it’s purely observational. Even more interesting, Kingdon elects to move up the social classes as the film goes on. Factory workers makeuping the most desirable traits in a sex doll factory gradually transitions to an impressive hotel where the country’s wealthiest citizens can sit back and relax. It’s eerie in many ways, particularly because of how objective the lens is, yet transfixing. Ascension is one of the more unique nominees for Best Documentary of the past 10 years, and a worthwhile watch for those interested in examining the capitalist landscape of a country that does not deem itself as such.
4. Writing with Fire
dir. Rintu Thomas & Sushmit Ghosh
Writing with Fire tells the story of Khabar Lahariya, an Indian newspaper run entirely by Dalit women. It follows Bureau Chief Meera Devi as she attempts to digitalize the newspaper, facing challenges from both the patriarchal, caste-based society as well as her partially illiterate staff, many of whom are using smartphones for the first time. They push against the status quo by documenting unaddressed sexual assault and violence as well as providing a voice for those who lack access to fundamental resources. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 where it won both the documentary Audience Award and the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change.
Of all the documentary nominees this year, Writing with Fire is likely the most crowd-pleasing. It captures hearts with its classic grassroots, quest-for-justice premise, and it also makes history as the first Indian feature-length documentary to be nominated for the award (and the third of any category). The film works to draw attention to Khabar Lahriya’s efforts while also serving as a call-to-action for other intersectional journalistic endeavors. It’s not particularly revolutionary as a piece of filmmaking, but its story is strong and its intentions are pure. Writing with Fire would perhaps be the go-to nominee in a less incredible year, but the odds of it winning this March are pretty low. Nonetheless, it will no doubt become a staple piece for movement journalism start-ups across the world.
Streaming: For rent on VUDU
3. Summer of Soul (or… When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Questlove’s directorial debut was another to make its first impression upon audiences at Sundance. It has been a long-running non-fiction favorite of the year, managing to keep up with its contemporaries due to Hulu’s strong advertising and its remarkable, never-before-seen footage. Primarily following the structure of a concert film, the film showcases the musical abilities of its all-star lineup of Black performers at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (to which a strong parallel is drawn between the events of Woodstock, which was happening during that same summer). Although the time capsule-like footage could probably speak for itself, the incorporation of festival attendee testimony adds that much more meaning to its assembly. The interviewed crowd members are clearly so passionate about the cultural significance of that concert – it is the first time they are seeing the footage since seeing the event in person as a young adult – that the momentum actually builds with each interjected comment or sigh of nostalgia.
The energy of the festival is captured in full force, and even non-soul fans will be moved by the sheer power of their voices and their connection with their audience. Summer of Soul is one of the most enjoyable movies of the year in any genre, and it is more than worthy of taking home the category award.
dir. Stanley Nelson Jr.
Stanley Nelson Jr. has been making documentaries for three decades, for which he was won multiple Emmys. He even received the National Humanities Medal in 2013 from President Obama. However, this is his first Academy award-nominated film. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware of Nelson until after seeing that Attica was nominated, and I think that is a necessary disclaimer because I have no past documentaries to compare his latest work to. His reputation doesn’t carry as much weight with me as it might with someone else. Nonetheless, Attica is one of the most potent movies of the year.
Perhaps for someone who is old enough to have followed the story of the 1971 Attica prison riot as it occurred, this movie may open up some wounds thoughts to have healed. But my ignorance of the outcome of the incident provided a blank canvas for the film to paint its brutal, mind-boggling story of violence into my brain exactly as desired. Even with its 18+ age content warning, I didn’t anticipate just how inhumane the handling of the situation was. Sure, some of the former inmates admit in their talking heads, there were a couple of faults on their end, but the escalation of the multi-day chaos by the authorities into its torturous finale is earth-shaking.
The film uses all 120 minutes thoughtfully, dropping important plot points as it went along. The characters are numerous: the inmates, the correctional officers, the town, the press, the lawyers, the government, even the layout of the prison. But Nelson handles all these elements with grace and wisdom, intelligently cutting back and forth to frame the multi-angled polyhedron of the truth. It’s an attention-grabbing piece of filmmaking from beginning to end, and could only have been made by an individual with equal parts technical prowess and vigorous passion for the subject matter.
Attica is a must-see, particularly for those who lack context for contemporary prison conditions (as many of the changes that were enacted as a result of this film were overturned in the 80s and 90s). It is an anger-inducing reminder of our shadowed past as a country, and those kinds of reminders should never be in short supply.
Streaming: Amazon Prime
dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee is the movie theater experience of the year. It’s probably odd to see that title given to a documentary, and an animated documentary at that. But I consider it a great privilege to have seen the movie in its proper setting and to have been so fully immersed in one of the all-time great truth-based stories put to the screen. Its humanity is what makes it so captivating, and its animated vision seemingly gives it an edge in reaching a wider audience.
Flee is one of the first major mainstream releases of I hope many refugee stories to be presented from the lens of the asylum seeker. It first premiered at Sundance before making stops at Annecy, Toronto, Montclair, and Manchester film festivals, sweeping up awards wherever it showed. Its distributor, Neon, did the right thing by waiting to release it to theaters until December, where it gained even more traction. Now, it is nominated for Best Documentary, Animated Feature, and International Feature. In a just world, it wins at least two of those awards.
Regardless of the Academy's eventual decision, Flee's impact is monumental. Its supranational scope, its overarching search for identity and a sense of home, and its gripping artistic presentation give it one of the best cinematic impressions of the last decade. It also has some of the best needle drops of the past year. Flee is greater than the sum of its parts, and its thoughtfully realized story alone is enough to make it the rightful winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary.