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This year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees focus on a changing world

Here’s how to watch the unusually globe-ranging documentaries competing for an Oscar.

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Scenes from For Sama and Honeyland
For Sama and Honeyland are both nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Oscars.
PBS/Neon

The 2020 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are focused on matters of global importance, showing how shifting norms around work, safety, and politics are affecting the lives of ordinary humans.

In two of the five films, people struggle to survive and save lives in war-torn Syria. In another, a beekeeper’s way of life is threatened by the encroaching outside world. One explores the way labor and manufacturing in the US is changing due to a globalized economy. And one is a searing, personal indictment of the authoritarian turn in Brazilian politics.

All of these stories, interestingly, are told fully or partly in languages other than English, and only one is set (partly) in the US. It’s a diverse field of contenders, shot with courage and beauty.

Here’s a brief guide to the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature and how to watch them.

American Factory

American Factory is a documentary about the 2014 reopening of a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio — by a Chinese company that makes automotive glass — and the ensuing cultural clashes that put some bumps in the road. Veteran documentarians Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert train their cameras on not only the people involved, but also the tasks and materials of factory work, giving less-familiar viewers an idea of how complicated and difficult it can be, as well as the value of skilled labor.

The resulting film tackles the challenges of globalization with much more depth and nuance than most other reporting on the topic, precisely because it steps back to watch a story unfold over time while resisting easy generalizations. It’s both soberly instructive and fascinating. (It’s also the first film from Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, which has partnered with Netflix to distribute a slate of programming.)

How to watch it: American Factory is streaming on Netflix.

The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad’s previous documentary Last Men in Aleppo was nominated for an Oscar in 2018. Now he’s returned with a companion piece, The Cave, which literally delves below the surface of the war in Syria to follow the people who are trying desperately to save lives. The documentary centers on a group of doctors working in a subterranean hospital, known as the “Cave,” where wounded patients are treated amid daily bombings and attacks.

The Cave is especially notable for focusing on pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and several of her women colleagues, who work alongside their male counterparts in the Cave in a capacity that would be shocking under normal circumstances given the patriarchal norms of their culture. Facing supply shortages, fear, and threats from above, the women show resilience and courage — and The Cave explores the strength required to persist in such daunting situations.

How to watch it: The Cave is playing in select theaters.

The Edge of Democracy

Taking a sweeping but personal view of contemporary Brazilian politics, filmmaker Petra Costa traces what happens when a country finally embraces democracy after years of military dictatorship — and then squanders its progress as it moves toward far-right authoritarianism. Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy to far-right authoritarianism.

Costa makes no claims of objectivity; instead, she weaves her family’s story into that of her country’s and asks devastating questions about peace, democracy, and living in a slow-motion, real-world horror story. Can what happened in Brazil happen elsewhere? And can a country return from the brink?

How to watch it: The Edge of Democracy is streaming on Netflix.

For Sama

There have been many documentaries in recent years about the bombings and humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and many of them have been excellent. But For Sama offers a new perspective on the subject, and it’s truly outstanding. Waad Al-Kateab and her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, a doctor, are native Syrians who lived in Aleppo when Syrians began to protest their government and President Bashar al-Assad. Their daughter, Sama, was born in 2016, and the family remained in Aleppo — with Hamza running a hospital — as the bombings continued.

Eventually, they left, and Waad and British documentarian Edward Watts edited years of footage she’d shot in Aleppo into For Sama. The film movingly documents life in the city and in Hamza’s hospital during the yearslong siege, while also offering an explanation, addressed to young Sama, for why her parents kept her in a dangerous place — and why their work was important.

How to watch it: For Sama is available to stream on PBS Frontline’s website.

Honeyland

Honeyland is a vibrant, fascinating, and sober documentary that examines a serious issue — the endangerment of bees — by way of a gorgeous human portrait. Hatidze Muratova is the last beekeeper in Macedonia, who lives on a quiet, secluded mountain and cares for her elderly mother as well as her apian charges. Her life’s work, as she sees it, isn’t just to keep the bees; it’s to help restore balance to the ecosystem around her, and bees are vital to that mission.

But her solitude is disrupted when a family of nomadic beekeepers arrive in search of honey to sell. They not only disrupt Muratova and threaten the insects’ existence — they also invade an established way of life on the relatively untouched mountain. As Honeyland progresses, different ways of thinking about commerce as well as beekeeping and the natural world come together in a story that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, and often enlightening. The result is one of the most beautiful portraits of love, work, and life that you’ll see in nonfiction film this year.

How to watch it: Honeyland is streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, or Vudu.

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