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What to Watch: Shortlisted Oscar-Nominated Documentaries in 2021

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From the story of an 80-year-old spy in a Chilean nursing home to a family fighting for justice in the US state of Louisiana, 15 documentaries will be considered in the Documentary Feature category of the 93rd Academy Awards. 

“What’s exciting this year is the range of films we have, from very artistic and creative ones to others that are more investigative in nature,” award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Carrie Lozano told GIJN. “And it is also important to recognize the effort to get films out this year, to keep going, to persevere, during a global pandemic.”

The winners will be announced at the Academy Awards live televised event this April 25.

The shortlisted documentaries are:

“All In: The Fight for Democracy” (United States)

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Directed and produced by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, this movie is about voter suppression in the US, and the ongoing battle against it. The film details the wide variety of efforts to prevent certain groups of citizens from exercising their right to vote. Older African Americans in parts of the US, for example, can be effectively blocked from voting by requiring a birth certificate, even if they have voted in previous elections. The documentary also reveals that almost every milestone of progress for voting rights has been followed by a major counter-reaction.

“Boys State” (United States)


This film follows thousands of teenagers from across the US state of Texas who gather to build a mock government from the ground up. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the project illustrates the obstacles that these young political organizers must overcome, including taking decisions collectively and campaigning for their highest positions. It also represents a mosaic of contemporary masculinity and adolescence, and reveals fundamental difficulties in building a democracy.

“Collective” (Romania)


Directed by Alexander Nanau, this documentary tells the story of a group of investigative journalists and their work exposing corruption in the wake of a fatal fire at a nightclub in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Ultimately, the tragedy and its fall-out led to the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Victor Ponta.  The film won the European Documentary Award at the European Film Awards. It was also screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and was recently chosen as Romania’s Academy Awards entry for best international feature. It is especially relevant now, as COVID-19 tests the integrity of healthcare systems around the world.

“Crip Camp” (United States)


This film tells the story of how a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities laid the groundwork for a civil rights victory in the US. The documentary focuses on Camp Jened, founded in the early fifties in New York state as a safe space for disabled young people.  The story shows how many former campers became activists, and used their life stories and talents to foster major legislative change. Directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, the project features former US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama as executive producers, under their Higher Ground Productions banner.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” (United States)

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This documentary is about the fear of death and the inevitable loss of our loved ones. Directed by Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson’s daughter, the film explores the tragedy of dementia, and new avenues to come to terms with loss. Dick has always been an intelligent and kind dad, but he is developing dementia. His condition might be sad, but the film gives viewers the opportunity to smile and appreciate his sense of humor and strength during the most difficult of times, providing some comfort with the suggestion that it is impossible to exercise control over an uncontrollable situation.

“Gunda” (United States and Norway)

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“Gunda” is a nature documentary directed by Victor Kossakovsky and produced by Joaquin Phoenix. The black and white film shows the daily life of a pig, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. Without visible human interaction, the director succeeds in showing farm animals as subjects of empathy, with their own agency. Filmed on farms in Norway, Britain, and Spain, it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020.

“MLK/FBI” (United States)

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This documentary uncovers the FBI’s surveillance of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s. Utilizing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as restored footage, the film explores the government’s history of targeting activists. The documentary was directed by Sam Pollard and produced by Benjamin Hedin.

“The Mole Agent” (Chile)

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Director Maite Alberdi set out to make a documentary about a spy in a nursing home.  The film begins with a family worried about their mother’s comfort and security in a retirement home. They seek out the help of an investigator, who in turn asks for the assistance of 83-year-old Sergio, who pretends he is a new resident at the retirement home. In reality, he becomes an undercover spy on the inside. The documentary follows Sergio’s assignment as his involvement with his fellow residents deepens. The result is a unique documentary that moves beyond its initial premise to offer insights on the needs of the elderly in Chile.

“My Octopus Teacher” (South Africa)

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Directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, this documentary follows South African filmmaker Craig Foster on his journey to reconnect with life. Foster found himself burned out and unhappy after years working at a breakneck pace. Following the example of the San people of the Kalahari whom he met while filming a documentary, Foster began carefully observing the natural world. For Foster, the kelp forests in the frigid water off South Africa’s south coast provided the sanctuary and mystery his mind craved. After weeks of observation, he met an enigmatic creature: the common octopus. Over several months, he gained her trust, watched her hunt, and watched her be hunted. Their unabashed mutual curiosity brings the relationship to unexpected depths. 

“Notturno” (Italy)

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Director Gianfranco Rosi brings an intimate view of the people who have endured revolution, invasion, coup, and ISIS. This sprawling documentary — filmed over the course of three years — shows life in the towns near the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Winner of best Italian Film at the Venice Film Festival, and selected by the Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and New York Film Festival, “Notturno” has been praised by a range of critics for its breathtaking cinematography.

“The Painter and the Thief” (United States)

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Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree captures the relationship between an artist and the thief who stole her work. The painter, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, wants to understand why anyone would steal her work, while the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, seeks understanding.  The film probes questions of radical empathy, as two people choose to humanize an “other” they could have easily demonized. “The Painter and the Thief” won a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival.

“76 Days” (China, United States)

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Directed by filmmaker Hao Wu, this documentary was filmed in four hospitals on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan. “76 Days” captures the struggles of patients and medical professionals battling COVID-19 in its earliest days. Some of the most moving images show inexperienced nurses working long hours and patients crowding hospital entrances, fearing they will not be let in once the hospital fills up. The film does not provide any broader context to the pandemic, but what the director aims to show is the human experience in the hospitals — scenes now all-too familiar around the world.

“Time” (United States)

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Directed by Garrett Bradley, this movie is about a woman who faces a 20-year struggle to get parole for her incarcerated husband. It tells the story of Fox and Rob, a couple who, during a desperate time in their lives, made a failed attempt to rob a bank. Fox served three years, and Rob was sentenced to 60 years without the possibility of parole. After Fox was released, she spent the next two decades working to free Rob while raising six boys. This movie is the saga of a family that went up against the legal system of Louisiana in the US, and came out victorious.

“The Truffle Hunters” (United States, Italy, Greece)

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This movie by filmmakers Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck is set in the forests of Italy, where men hunt the popular white Alba truffle. To date, the truffle has resisted modern efforts at cultivation. The movie is a unique opportunity to know more about their training, which is passed down through generations. And it suggests that meaning can be found in simple pursuits. 

“Welcome to Chechnya” (United States)

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Directed by David France and filmed from 2017 to 2019, this movie follows a group of Russian activists working to rescue victims of anti-LGBTQ repression in Chechnya. The documentary tells the story of people being persecuted, but also of those who put themselves in danger to help. It premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and screened at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival last year.

Additional Reading

A Global Tour of Top Investigative Podcasts: The 2020 Edition

What to Watch: DIG’s Investigative Documentary Shortlist

4 Sundance Documentaries That Shed Light on the Perils of Journalism

Andrea Arzaba is a journalist and GIJN’s Spanish Editor. As a reporter and media professional, Arzaba has dedicated her life to documenting the stories of people in Latin America and Latinx communities in the US. She holds a Masters degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. Andrea is an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow and part of Transparency International’s Young Journalists Program.

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