The MCC 2021 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Revue

Ann Cupolo Freeman from "Crip Camp".

Retired social worker and physical rehab specialist Ann Cupolo Freeman, among the many campers who grew up to become activists in Netflix’s Crip Camp.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt. The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge…

In my youth and young-adulthood, seeing any of the Oscar-nominated documentaries before the ceremonies was usually impossible. Or after the ceremonies, for that matter. Streaming media changed the game and broadened access and opportunities for ordinary viewers even before the pandemic turned the convenience into a lifesaver. I’ve yet to enjoy a year in which all the nominees for Best Documentary Short Film or Best Documentary Feature were universally clickable, but the percentages have been generously high. It’s been fun seeing how many I could chase down legally without overpaying for the privilege.

We begin first with the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. One of them is an Amazon Prime exclusive and can therefore bite me. I’ve seen the other four and rank them here from most to least connective:

* Crip Camp (Netflix): Once upon a time in the 1970s, Camp Jened was the hot spot where disabled kids and teens could spend part of every summer hanging out, doing group activities, making new friends, caring for each other, and generally having a blast in a judgment-free zone. Spina bifida, cerebral palsy, polio, short stature, the deaf and the blind, and so on — whatever their story, everyone belonged, and everyone welcomed everyone else. Years later many of them stuck together and became a united front of protestors in the fight for disability rights. The initial promise held in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — whose key Section 504 was eventually signed into law once Richard Nixon stopped dragging his feet — prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, but enforcement was next to nil. The group efforts stepped up under President Jimmy Carter’s term, leading to a 25-day sit-in in San Francisco. The old crew from Camp Jened engendered new followers, and once again everyone fit right in for a shared experience and a powerful cause.

A cornucopia of archival footage charts their journey from one coast to the other and back again, from the raucous laughter of mischievous youth to fed-up activists engaged in picketing and hunger strikes on federal grounds. Although their efforts would take until 1990 to come to fruition with Bush the Elder signing the ADA in 1990, even now the work continues. Fans of Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 would do well to add Crip Camp to their 2020 Civil Rights Demonstrations Film Festival. If you need added incentive, one scene invites special guests the Black Panthers in a sort of “Down With The MAN” crossover.

* The Mole Agent (Hulu): A private detective in Chile is hired to investigate a nursing home that might or might not be like those crooked ones on 60 Minutes. But a middle-aged P.I. can’t merely check himself in or hide outside with parabolic mikes for months on end because that’s boring and maybe inefficient. So he hires an inside man — an 83-year-old widower willing to spend three months of his life undercover to check on the client’s mom. The recruitment process isn’t simple — he has to be lucid, responsive, mobile, reasonably healthy, and, most importantly, willing and able to learn how to use phone apps for recording and checking in. That last qualification knocks out numerous applicants in an opening montage that’s so funny, it feels nearly fictional. I can’t poke too much fun considering the winning applicant learns how to FaceTime while I’ve ever even installed it.

Once inside, our man Sergio is a real charmer standing out in his dapper suits and his upright posture and his fully intact mental faculties. Soon the elderly ladies are swooning for him like he’s James Bond, though little do they know he really is a man on a mission. As weeks go by, the nursing home’s story and sins, if any, take a back seat to what Sergio learns from the community around them and watches each resident dealing with separation and isolation in their own ways. Some are clingy chatterboxes; some, such as his target, are inscrutable enigmas. As his sympathies grow, he reaches that point in every spy thriller when the hero might be In Too Deep and has to make judgment calls while the handler is yelling at him from afar to get out of there. In the end, maybe the adult children who never come visit their aging parents were the real crooked nursing home all along.

* Collective (Vudu): Also nominated for Best International Feature, which is a fine compliment. As starkly shown in terrifying firsthand phone footage from the inside, a 2015 fire in a Romanian nightclub kills 27 people and injures over eighty others. Over the next few weeks, 37 more die in the hospital from bacterial infections. A local sports newspaper gets curious and investigates, only to learn the hospital’s disinfectant was watered down to one-tenth strength at the factory and sold defective. Then they learn a high-ranking hospital official has a financial stake in the disinfectant biz. Then there’s a suspiciously timed death that raises more eyebrows. And fake invoices paid for supplies that never materialize. And doctors who demand to work on the procedures that earn the most bribes from patients. And onward runs the chain of corruption throughout the Romanian healthcare system. Things seem so bad, you’d think they were Soviet property.

After a first half that approaches a Tiger King density of ludicrous shock-following-shock, the film’s second half shifts focus from the crusading journalists to the newly appointed Minister of Health, a patients’ rights advocate who finally has the opportunity to change the system from within, only to learn it’s pretty awful and hurdles are everywhere and how is this country even still standing. Every measure he takes either isn’t enough to effect real change or sparks more belligerent challenges from opponents, culminating in a standoff against the most potentially destructive force known to man: voters in a democracy who can’t resist the shiny allure of distracting flimsy campaign promises. At points the camera stops to watch developments on overhead TVs, perhaps echoing the irony of All the President’s Men, but instead it loses some of their built-up head of steam. By the end, the minister’s tale is more like the newsroom scenes in season five of The Wire — an integral part of an important whole, but a bit lagging behind the other, more electrifying parts that led to it.

* My Octopus Teacher (Netflix): A South African filmmaker has vaguely damaged feels and decides he needs a break from everyday life and from his family, and laments how he can’t be a dad to his son for a while, so he heads out to a remote oceanic getaway and develops a weird obsession with a most peculiar octopus that’s cleverly figured out how to craft her own armor out of seashells. Our deadbeat dad spends many, many months following this octopus, observing her daily, letting her get used to him, and recording all her most interesting moves using state-of-the-art camera equipment. He’s clearly developed a deep emotional investment in this tiny, inventive creature and will never, ever shut up about her, even after he reaches the time when they must part and there’s such sweet sorrow and he’ll never forget that nearly year-long sabbatical he spent with the underwater best friend who taught him to live and love again, or something. Oh, and at the end he remembers to bring in his son and teach him of the ocean’s awesomeness, probably so he can talk about the octopus all over again and ask him why he can’t be more like the octopus.

Granted, the underwater footage is frequently gorgeous, and I’ll never forget the unique sight of an octopus covered in shells and riding around on the back of a small, antagonistic shark like Slim Pickens and his bomb. That’s not something you see every day, or possibly ever again. But honestly, front-loading this with a deadbeat-dad confession severed my sympathies early on, and the dude’s somniferous voice would pair better with one of those old lulling-ocean-sounds sleep-aid cassettes.

"Hunger Ward" Documentary Short film

A survivor of the “war” in “Hunger Ward”.

I’ve also watched the five nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject. Each year the good folks at Shorts.tv do combine these in a single viewing package, same as they do for the Live-Action Short Films and the Animated Short Films. Far as I know those have never played theatrically here in town, but if you have the right subscriptions, all are viewable without effort or additional cost. Ranked here from Most Emotionally Scarring to Most Also Worthwhile But Not Quite As Wounding:

* Hunger Ward (Pluto TV via Xfinity): The latest upstanding work from the makers of last year’s “Lifeboat”. Two hospitals on either end of Yemen face the same humanitarian crisis: wartime horrors beget famine and other hardships for the children caught in the middle. While the menfolk ruin everything, women at each hospital do their best with the resources at hand to care for their malnourished charges, some of whom are school-age yet barely weigh more than my head. Just when you think it’s an amalgam of every “for only the cost of one coffee a day” fundraiser commercial, then you’re crushed by incidents such as when one child’s grandma who means well gives them a bottle while intubated, fluid floods down the wrong pipe, and the results are devastating. Outside, the shelling goes on.

* A Love Song for Latasha (Netflix): A heartfelt love letter to a 15-year-old Black girl who was murdered in 1992 by a paranoid Korean-American shopkeeper over a bottle of orange juice. The requiem starts quietly and focuses on celebrating her life and loves at first, but after a few minutes my wife remembered the incident and its headlines before I did. It was among the many incidents after Rodney King was savaged by police and was among the events leading to the L.A. riots. Before all that, Latasha Harlins was just a girl with a lot of dreams and a family who love and miss her. That’s the part that needs to be remembered most.

* Do Not Split (official website): If you loved Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Crip Camp, the year’s protest-mania continues with fury on the rise in Hong Kong after a June 2019 decision by the Chinese government to extradite Hong Kong citizens to the mainland for their criminal trials, in a much harsher court system boasting a 99% conviction rate. Peaceful protests escalate into what could be called “riots” if that word can be applied when one side is heavily armed and the other side mostly just has cell phones and harsh language. Nominees in some of the other Oscar categories super-love China to pieces (even when China doesn’t love them back — hey there, Mulan!), but this 35-minute ode to suppressed independence is one of two most probable reasons why China is refusing to air this year’s telecast.

(Also, bonus points awarded for the later footage circa February 2020, shots of streets gone eerily empty when COVID-19 came around and everyone in town, cognizant of the country’s past pandemics, ceased all further public gatherings and locked down before anyone ordered them to. On a related note, as of tonight Hong Kong’s 7-day average for new COVID cases is 13 per day. Not deaths. Cases. THIRTEEN of them. Meanwhile here in Indiana, with a population half a million less than theirs, is still averaging over 1200/day. This has very little to do with the short’s primary objective, but you can imagine why it stuck with me.)

* A Concerto is a Conversation (New York Times on YouTube): Back in the day, Horace Bowers exited the Deep South and the Jim Crow gatekeepers that wanted Black men like him dead. He moved on and found hardships elsewhere, yet he founded a business and cleared his path with pride. Today his grandson Kris is an Emmy-winning composer whose resume includes Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and, for better or worse, Green Book. Grandpa shares his story and the journey that made it possible for descendants like Kris to bring their own accomplishments into the world, and for one family’s legacy to show others what’s possible.

* Colette (The Guardian on YouTube): Every year there’s a WWII-related nominee in at least one category. This year’s “never forget” tribute follows a 90-year-old former French Resistance ally (she downplays her own contributions) who begrudgingly decides to visit the concentration camp where her brother was among 20,000 murdered (Mittelbau-Dora, one of the smaller, lower-profile hellholes). She’s practically going under duress (call her a hostile visitor) and contains her emotions for as long as she can hold out. Eventually there are tears. No matter how hardcore they were then or they are today, there are always tears.

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