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Oscars 2024: Who Will Win the Best Documentary Feature Film Award?

The Contenders: Moses Bwayo, Mstyslav Chernov, John Battsek, Nisha Pahuja, Michelle Mizner, and Kaouther Ben Hania compete for the 2024 Best Documentary Feature Oscar. / Photo by Owen Kolasinski, courtesy of Academy Museum Foundation and A.M.P.A.S.

The Contenders: Moses Bwayo, Mstyslav Chernov, John Battsek, Nisha Pahuja, Michelle Mizner, and Kaouther Ben Hania compete for the 2024 Best Documentary Feature Oscar. / Photo by Owen Kolasinski, courtesy of Academy Museum Foundation and A.M.P.A.S.

Like the acting awards going to the performer whose character suffers the most, the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film tends to go to the one that feels more urgent and newsworthy. Is there any other way around it? I don’t think so. The 2024 crop of nominees offers a wide variety of thematic focus and styles. Perceived historical importance may give some an advantage, but recent changes in the make up of the Academy voting body may give an edge to candidates more experimental than the records ripped from the headlines. No matter who wins, this is a particularly strong slate of contenders. Movie buff, watch them all!

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

If your cinematic education about Uganda begins and ends with the classic documentary “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait” (Barbet Schroeder, 1974) and the fictional “The Last King of Scotland” (Kevin McDonald, 2006), you are in for an update with this hard-hitting documentary from Moses Bray and Christopher Sharp. The movie follows the political awakening of Bobi Wine, a self-made musical superstar in Uganda who gets into politics with the mission to face dictator Yoweri Museveni in a presidential run. Alas, you can’t count on a ruthless autocrat to play straight. There will be political drama, bloodshed, and a riveting struggle to save democracy.

The movie follows Wine as he crosses over from music into politics, becomes a congressman, and eventually leads a coalition to challenge Museveni in the 2021 elections. The documentary is rather classic in form. Straight talking-head interviews combined with coverage of the tumultuous campaign. Wine and his family gave the filmmakers what seems like no-holds-barred access, which makes the whole endeavor feel extremely intimate. We are there when his wife,  Barbie Kyagulanyi, tearfully fields interviews via phone with international journalists right as Bobi remains kidnapped and tortured by the military. We virtually sit at the dining room table when husband and wife decide to send their four children abroad for safety.  However, the most shocking coverage comes from the violence Museveni’s goons unleash on Wine’s associates and innocent Ugandans.

Your blood will boil, and if you are personally acquainted with political repression and life under a dictatorship, the movie may be triggering. Sometimes, reality does not allow documentaries to have a satisfying narrative arc, but that is an assumed risk when you work in this racket. “Bobi Wine…” is a fascinating primer on the plight of contemporary Uganda, but it’s hard to see it taking the Oscar.

The Eternal Memory

Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi scores her second Academy Award nomination three years after surprising the world with “The Mole Agent” (2021). The conceptually playful doc followed an octogenarian recruited to infiltrate a retirement community and investigate suspicions of abuse. Things get warmer and gently comic as the movie progresses. It’s something of a mystery to me that it lost the award to the maudlin “My Octopus Teacher”  (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020).

Her follow-up is a more sober affair. “The Eternal Memory” brings Alberdi and a small crew into the home of a golden couple formed by influential journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife, actress Paulina Urrutia. American audiences may be unaware of Góngora’s towering stature in Chilean culture, but the movie does a good job of putting us up to date. Still, there is no way their predicament does not feel like a blow: this brilliant man of letters is facing the encroaching of Alzheimer’s Disease. The movie registers their struggle, as Urrutia becomes the primary care of her husband. Their commitment to the project is deep. Not even the Coronavirus lockdown keeps the cameras out. Urrutia learns to use a camcorder and picks up where the pros left off.

This is perhaps my favorite out of the five nominees, which does not necessarily mean it will win!

The movie won the World Cinema Documentary Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. You can read our interview with Alberdi and Urrutia, recorded around the theatrical premiere in the US. “The Eternal Memory” is streaming on Paramount+ and available for digital rent on all major platforms.

Four Daughters

Director Kaouther Ben Hania got her first Oscar nomination in the Best International Feature Film category for the fictional “The Man Who Sold His Skin” (2020). This year, she crashed the Documentary competition with “Four Daughters.” The movie is a favorite at film festivals. It competed in the Official Selection for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and won the Golden Eye Award for Best Documentary.

It’s easy to see why. It is the most formally daring of the bunch. Calling attention to the artifice from the get-go, Ben Hania recruits actors to perform side by side with Olfa Hamrouni and her daughters, reconstructing for the cameras the undoing of her family as the Islamic State’s influence rises on the region. It is compelling, heartbreaking stuff. The less said about it, the more powerful your first viewing will be. I can tell you I would not be mad if the movie took the award. If there’s one thing against it, it’s how the fiction/non-fiction conceit falls by the wayside towards the end, but that impression may dissipate upon a second viewing. Yes, it’s that rich a movie. 

“Four Daughters” can be streamed on Netflix and is available for digital rent on all major platforms. 

To Kill a Tiger

Nisha Pahuja's documentary follows the struggle of a man in rural India who fights for justice when his 13-years old daughter suffers a gang rape. Netflix acquires the distribution rights. In a strange programming decision, decided to hold off the premiere for Sunday, March 10. They are missing out on the viewership of people who may want to see all the nominees before Oscar night. It's quite a gamble, if you consider that interest may decrease if the movie does not win.

Keep watching this space for my imminent review!

20 Days in Mariupol

Talk about a doc ripped from the headlines. Ukrainian journalists Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka, and Liudmyla Amelkina were covering the siege of Mariupol for foreign news agencies when Russian forces took over the city. The team stayed to make a record of a deadly stage in the invasion of their homeland. The resulting movie is a chilling war diary that should be obligated viewing for anybody who doubts wether the civilized world should support Ukraine.

The movie premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. It went on to score major end-of-the-year awards, including the BAFTA and the DGA awards. For all practical purposes, this one is the frontrunner.

Read our review, fresh from the movie’s premiere at Sundance. “20 Days in Mariupol” is streaming now on PBS and available for digital rental on all major platforms. 

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