The 2021 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are eclectic, both in the topics they address and the style in which they address them. There’s a searing exposition of a corrupt government. There’s a thoughtful story about learning from an octopus. One film is a gentle comedy about elderly people that’s also kind of a spy thriller. One is a rousing history of the disability activist movement. And one is a stunning, personal story of a family striving to remain together even in the face of incarceration and endless bureaucratic exhaustion.
Taken collectively, the nominees show just how richly diverse the methods of nonfiction filmmaking have become. Truth is always stranger than fiction, but the filmmakers who shape the truth into cinema lean on artistry and imagination to engage, startle, and delight audiences.
Here is a guide to the five nominees for the 2021 Oscar for Best Documentary and how you can watch them.
In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest, Romania, nightclub killed 27 people — and in the weeks that followed, 37 more, the result of shockingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in the survivors. Collective, named in part for the nightclub, is an observational documentary that traces the conditions and exposes the huge deficiencies in Romania’s health care system that led directly to that additional loss of life. Documentarian Alexander Nanau captures the lies government officials told during the fallout from the fire; their actions eventually resulted in the government’s downfall, though it was short-lived.
Collective plays out like a chilling, slow-moving train wreck, a study in how a government gaslights its citizens into accepting conditions that would be avoidable but for greed and corruption. In its second half, the film focuses on a new, young minister of health — Vlad Voiculescu, who’s trying to affect change — while also showing the uphill battle and eventual fruitlessness of his fight.
Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-seeming “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former Jened camper) Jim Lebrecht explains early on. It soon becomes a chronicle of a movement sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their time in that place.
Crip Camp shows how the vision young Jened attendees experienced at camp — that the world could be open to them, too — led them to become activists and community organizers. The film is buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.
How to watch it: Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix.
The Mole Agent
You could call The Mole Agent a spy movie, but it’s an unusual one — and unusually poignant, too. Documentarian Maite Alberdi lets us in on a bit of subterfuge as Sergio, an older Chilean man, is “cast” as a new nursing home resident by Detective Romulo, who’s been hired to investigate the facility.
Sergio’s job is to infiltrate the home on behalf of Romulo’s client and look into whether the client’s mother is being abused; meanwhile, the documentarians follow Sergio and observe the home’s residents, who don’t know the whole truth about why Sergio is there. The result is a sweet film and a surprising one, an interesting blend of fact and fiction that also explores the lives, wishes, and desires of older people.
My Octopus Teacher
Craig Foster was a burnt-out filmmaker in 2010 when he found an unlikely remedy for his exhaustion: free diving in an underwater kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa. Underwater, he started to feel alive again while observing the animals and plants. He started bringing his cameras along to film them. And then he met an octopus.
In My Octopus Teacher, Foster tells his story to directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, narrating his extraordinary experience against the backdrop of footage he shot below the reef. He follows the octopus for a year and forms a kind of friendship with it, watching as it is attacked by predators, feeds on wildlife, and approaches him with curiosity. In the end, she mates, lays eggs, and dies — a natural process — but in her life, Foster finds meaning and understanding of our creaturely fragility on Earth. It’s a simple film, but for undersea enthusiasts it’s a special one.
How to watch it: My Octopus Teacher is streaming on Netflix.
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the drive to keep going that hope can provide. The film, which won Garrett Bradley the directing prize at Sundance, follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband, Rob, from prison.
Since 1997, Rob has been serving a 60-year prison sentence for a crime he committed as a young man, one in which he and Fox were both involved. Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community — all the while making home videos that, taken together, feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates Black families in America, as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of official narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.
How to watch it: Time is streaming on Amazon Prime.
The 2021 Oscars will air live on ABC from Los Angeles on Sunday, April 25.