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2020 Oscar Circuit: Best Documentary Feature

Oscar Predictions: Welcome to our annual “Oscar Circuit” series – our deep dive look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of AwardsCircuit.com will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your own predicted winners in the comment section too!

One of the biggest surprise omissions on Oscar morning came in the Best Documentary Feature category, where presumed frontrunner “Apollo 11” was found missing among the nominees. Yet despite this apparent snub, the lineup is one of the strongest ever assembled by the Academy’s Documentary branch. Among the nominees are two devastating accounts of the war in Syria, a sobering examination of Brazilian politics and its implications for worldwide democracy, a cross-cultural study of capitalism in America and China and an enlightening depiction of a beekeeper’s life in rural North Macedonia.

Here’s a closer look at this year’s contenders for Best Documentary Feature:

And the nominees are:

  • “American Factory”
  • “The Cave”
  • “The Edge of Democracy”
  • “For Sama”
  • “Honeyland”

“American Factory”
dir. Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar

STUDIO: Netflix

With “Apollo 11” out of the way, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar will surely be optimistic about their chances to win this category for their film “American Factory“. If it happens, it will be a first for the directing duo, whose Oscar history extends all the way back to Julia Reichert’s Union Maids, which was nominated in this category in 1976. Premiering at Sundance, the film tells the story of how a Chinese company revived an Ohio community after the closure of a General Motors plant. As many unemployed citizens received a lifeline with this new opportunity, a culture clash sets as American individualism is confronted by Chinese collectivism in the labor force.

An utterly fascinating exploration of both the similarities and differences in American and Chinese industry, “American Factory” garnered directing awards from Sundance, Critics Choice, International Documentary Association and Directors Guild of America, in addition to winning Best Documentary at the Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye Honors. Notably, the film is also the first film from Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground, with its Netflix release being accompanied by an interview special between the Obamas and the directors. In a heated election year, that added political element could give the film a bonus rooting factor to push it to the top of voters’ ballots.

“The Cave”
dir. Feras Fayyad

STUDIO: National Geographic Documentary Films

Ever since the civil war broke out in Syria nearly 10 years ago, filmmakers have been on the frontlines documenting the horrors for the world to see. In recent years, those efforts have been recognized by the Academy with nominations for Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” and “Last Men in Aleppo” by Feras Fayyad in Best Documentary Feature. This year, two more films surrounding the subject garnered nods in the category, including Fayyad’s follow-up “The Cave.” Set in an underground makeshift hospital, “The Cave” follows the efforts of a team of largely female doctors determined to provide healthcare amid the onslaught of bombs above. Using the immersive sound design, Fayyad conveys the harrowing experience of war with palpable urgency.

On the road to Oscar, “The Cave” has notched up several accolades, including the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. However, it has often been overshadowed by the similarly-themed “For Sama” which provides an even more personal female perspective on the war. A win for “The Cave” would, therefore, come as a major surprise on Oscar night.

“The Edge of Democracy”
dir. Petra Costa

STUDIO: Netflix

One of the most welcome surprise inclusions among the Documentary Feature lineup is Petra Costa’sThe Edge of Democracy“. Charting the rise and fall of democracy in Brazil over the past few decades, Costa blends personal insight and in-depth investigative journalism to unpack how her beloved homeland became a hotbed for corruption, scandal, and right-wing propaganda. Endlessly gripping and informative, it is a true tour de force of non-fiction storytelling that serves as a cautionary tale for democracies everywhere.

Prior to its surprise Oscar nom, “The Edge of Democracy” picked up a few nominations from such awards bodies as the Critics Choice, Gotham Awards and International Documentary Association. With no major wins to speak of, an Oscar win seems unlikely. But with its strong relevance to the current American political climate could definitely resonate with voters. If you’re looking for a dark horse to predict in this category, this could be it.

“For Sama”
dir. Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts

STUDIO: PBS Distribution

While many pundits will pick “American Factory” as the frontrunner in this category, a strong challenge will surely come from Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’For Sama.” This heartrending documentary shows the experiences of a woman and her family in war-torn Syria, as they struggle to hold on to the precious things in life. Framed as a diary to her newborn baby, Waad Al-Kateab brings a uniquely personal perspective to the Syrian Civil War.

Freshly announced as the BAFTA winner, this touching documentary has enjoyed a ubiquitous presence along the awards circuit. Its success includes wins at the Cannes Film Festival, European Film Awards, and the International Documentary Association Awards among other laurels. Though some could argue that the presence of “The Cave” could result in vote-splitting, this film is beloved enough to garner the support needed.

“Honeyland”
dir. Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

STUDIO: Neon

Last but certainly not least, “Honeyland” enters Oscar night already has made history. Namely, it is the first film to score nominations in both Best Documentary Feature and International Feature. And it’s easy to understand why. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, this portrait of a beekeeper’s daily life in rural Macedonia is captivating and stunningly shot. As environmental degradation puts her profession under threat, it’s virtually possible to not be affected by her plight.

Like “American Factory” and “For Sama”, awards season has been very kind to “Honeyland.” The film has racked up major kudos including top prizes at Sundance and numerous critics associations. Admittedly, its cinéma vérité may prevent it from appealing to a broad spectrum of voters. However, its double nominations indicate proven support across multiple branches.

WILL WIN: “American Factory”
SHOULD WIN: “American Factory”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: “The Biggest Little Farm”

Share your thoughts on the Best Documentary Feature race in the comments below!

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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