It was a strange Academy Awards in 2021. Diversity was the most visible change in the world of Oscar glitz, but the pandemic, with its enforced social distancing and lack of production numbers, was also a factor.
In terms of cinema, however, what was most impressive about the Oscars this year were the five nominated documentary features. One, Collective, a Romanian film about the lethal corruption of health care in that country and reporters’ attempts at determining the truth, was reviewed in these pages last December.
I caught up with three others this week. The experience was profound: each film is unique, a triumph of style and substance.
The winner this year, My Octopus Teacher, is a nature documentary transformed into a personal journey, a tale of recovery and redemption. It depicts the most intense interrelationship between a human and a wild animal ever filmed. It was shot in Africa, not surprisingly, but this is not a Born Free drama about the heroism of human intervention.
Craig Foster, the central figure in the movie, is a successful documentary filmmaker who, in middle age, has burned himself out. What he does to heal himself from psychological and spiritual breakdown is to return to the kelp forest off the Atlantic coast near Cape Town, South Africa, where he grew up. He wants to focus on a contained ecosystem and simply observe. He sheds his scuba gear, training himself to hold his breath in the relatively shallow water and adapt to its icy cold temperatures without a wet suit. He establishes an almost Zen rhythm with the sea life in the kelp forest, and films it in daily visits for more than a year.
Using tracking techniques he had learned from tribal masters in one of his films, he discovers a sole octopus, a female, and patiently and persistently makes contact. She learns to trust him, and goes about her daily trials of feeding and survival with him watching. It’s as if she’s willingly sharing her life. Her courage, intelligence, and resilience astound him. He observes a near-death incident with a shark and watches her heal. He sees her mate and regenerate. It saves his life.
Foster narrates the story, and his emotions, though revealed gently, have great power. The team of filmmakers (including directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed) who enhance his solo efforts with dazzling underwater photography never lose sight of the primal narrative of My Octopus Teacher — how an animal in the wild can teach us the value of living, and how a respect for nature means leaving it alone. It’s a beautiful film, sometimes terrifying and always fulfilling. Netflix subscribers can watch it for free.
The next nominee I encountered is another Netflix documentary — Crip Camp, a sprawling, masterfully edited story of a Catskills summer camp for disabled teenagers in the 1970s that nurtured a generation of activists who forever changed the way we regard and treat the disabled population. (Michelle and Barack Obama were executive producers of the film, but it’s as scrappy as can be.)
For many of the New York teenagers at Camp Jened, being in a place with hippie counselors and sexual freedom, surrounded by those who are disabled, is a new and liberating experience. The brilliance of Crip Camp is the way it delves into the personal stories of disabled individuals — in archival footage of life at Camp Jened, during historic demonstrations, and in present-day testimonials — and weaves them together into the fabric of a political movement.
They are fascinating people: Judith Heumann, left wheelchair-bound by polio, is a natural-born political leader; James LeBrecht, born with spina bifida, is an impish charmer and co-director of the film (with Nicole Newnham); and Denise Sherer Jacobson, disabled by cerebral palsy, is a scholar and ribald wit (despite the need for subtitles to understand her) who met her husband, Neil Jacobson, at Camp Jened.
Through their experiences and those of their friends, we see the ignorance and tyranny they face as they force government leaders to accede to their demands: equal access to the world and equal rights to the pursuit of happiness. They have an esprit de corps that will leave no one who watches the film unaffected.
Lastly, and in a class by itself, is Time, presented by Amazon Prime (free to subscribers) and the New York Times. Directed by Garrett Bradley, the movie is about a couple, Sibil Fox and Robert Richardson — known as Fox and Rob Rich — and their four sons, and how they deal with Rob’s 60-year prison sentence for armed robbery in Louisiana.
When Fox and Rob’s retail business in Shreveport starts to fail, in an act of desperation, they rob a credit union and are caught. Fox, the getaway driver, gets a short sentence and serves three and a half years after her twins are born. She spends the next 15 years working to get Rob clemency.
The film is shot in black and white, and edited impressionistically, jumping back and forth in time and alternating between home footage shot by Fox and present-day scenes of Fox at work selling used cars, in church, and on the phone with the criminal justice bureaucracy.
There is no narration or factual recitation. One gets to know this remarkable and formidable family by sharing with them the moments of life they choose to act out. The effect is mesmerizing, a cinematic baptism into the scourge of incarceration, reminiscent of the early indie movies of Charles Burnett and Shirley Clarke. It’s an unforgettable experience.