If last year’s quintet of Oscar-nominated feature documentaries reflected a voting branch with an appetite for international stories, then it is one that is being well-served by the crop of films on offer this year. Last year, nominated international stories came from directors hailing from North America (Navalny, Fire Of Love), Denmark (A House Made Of Splinters) and India (All That Breathes), competing alongside a sole US story, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed. Navalny won the Oscar.
This time around, leading contenders for the documentary Oscar include a diverse group of films that, as well as dealing with international subjects, come from international filmmakers and backers, with many in languages other than English.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the ripped-from-the-headlines subject of 20 Days In Mariupol, which is also Ukraine’s submission for this year’s international film Oscar. Anselm is the latest 3D artist profile from German director Wim Wenders, previously nominated three times in the category. The Eternal Memory has Chile’s Maite Alberdi, nominated three years ago for The Mole Agent, examining the personal effects of Alzheimer’s disease. They Shot The Piano Player is an animated, multi-national jazz odyssey. And Orlando, My Political Biography, which enters the race after winning prizes at the Berlinale, is a French take on gender identity.
In the international feature Oscar category, meanwhile, no fewer than 14 of the 92 films submitted so far this year are documentaries or docudramas, a big increase from the four documentaries submitted last year and the five for the 2022 awards. Besides 20 Days In Mariupol, the list includes Ireland’s submission In The Shadow Of Beirut, Tunisia’s Four Daughters, Canada’s Rojek, Morocco’s The Mother Of All Lies, Estonia’s Smoke Sauna Sisterhood and Norway’s Songs Of Earth.
The international presence is hardly unprecedented. Last year, in addition to Oscar-nominated titles such as All That Breathes, appearing on the documentary category shortlist of 15 films were the likes of Children Of The Mist directed by Vietnam’s Ha La Diem and Hidden Letters from China’s Violet Du Feng; the 2022 shortlist showed a similar international mix, including eventual nominees Flee (from Denmark) and Writing With Fire(from India). However, international films have only won the documentary Oscar on rare occasions, and have yet to claim an international feature Oscar.
Changes to the US Academy’s rules and membership may be one factor contributing to the international influx. “What has really changed over the last five years is the number of international documentary branch members,” says Ana Vicente, strategy and business development executive at UK-based documentary company Dogwoof, international seller of 20 Days In Mariupol and (in partnership with MTV Documentary Films) The Eternal Memory.
Since the 2019 awards, Academy rules have allowed films to qualify for documentary feature category consideration by winning a major festival prize or by being selected as their country’s international feature submission, alleviating the need for a US theatrical release.
The increasingly international Academy membership, meanwhile, now includes a documentary branch with 680 voting members, more than four times as many reported seven years ago. Nearly half of the filmmakers invited to join the branch this year were from countries outside the US and UK.
Blurring lines between the international and US markets and the narrative and documentary genres could be another factor. “The world has become a smaller place,” points out Sheila Nevins, the influential longtime head of HBO’s documentary unit who is now executive producer at MTV Documentary Films. The Eternal Memory, to which MTV snapped up worldwide rights at this year’s Sundance, shows how documentaries have “borrowed the emotional element from narrative features”, adds Nevins. “The whole film is an interrelationship between two people.”
Then there are the changes that the US documentary business — and the distributors who work in it and use awards buzz to foster audience interest — have gone through over recent years. During the streaming wars, Netflix and other platforms introduced new audiences to foreign-language programming and helped fund a documentary boom. As a result, “American audiences are now more accepting of subtitles than ever before, and more accepting of documentaries than ever before,” suggests Jonathan Sehring, partner at Sideshow Pictures, US distributor with Janus Films of Anselm and Orlando, My Political Biography as well as international narrative features such as Oscar winner Drive My Car.
The streamers have put more focus on celebrity and music documentaries, and that has opened up a niche that theatrical distributors and more adventurous international documentaries may be better suited to fill.
At three-year-old Sideshow, says Sehring, “It was never the original intention to get involved with documentaries. [Anselm and Orlando] are just two great movies that we happened to fall in love with — and they happen to be documentaries.”