This year’s Oscars make an appeal for human rights
This year’s Academy Awards, which culminate on the evening of 27 March, have a lot of crossover with the One World festival of human rights films – at least in the documentary category, where the nominated films, while stylistically diverse, all focus on human rights issues. For that matter, one of the films – the Indian documentary Writing With Fire – was screened at One World last year, and another – the anidoc Flee – was presented there this year.
Five films have been shortlisted for the Oscar for best documentary feature this year – three of American provenance, one Danish, and one Indian. The first of the three American films, Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension, follows the situation in Chinese society with a focus on residents’ work process and leisure opportunities. Through an observational form, the director climbs the class ladder from the poorest factory workers to the middle class struggling to break into the world of influencers and internet stars to the high-ranking cosmopolitan executives, demonstrating the deep divide between the individual social classes. The film also hints at the issues of state surveillance, ubiquitous security cameras, and the social credit system, which threatens to deepen this divide even further, and thus assembles a telling mosaic of the (un)successful realisation of the “Chinese dream”.
The other two American films, Attica and Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), deal with issues of racism and the rights of ethnic minorities in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Attica describes a five-day prison uprising – an attempt by the prisoners to improve the inhumane conditions and the racist behaviour of the guards – which was bloodily suppressed by the National Guard. Summer of Soul, which was presented at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival last year, explores the impact of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 on the African American community, its position in society, and the penetration of its culture into the mainstream. Although both documentaries are temporally anchored at the end of the 1960s, they describe entirely different events. Both, however, take a critical view of African Americans’ position in American society, and both utilize similar formal and stylistic devices to express that view. A large amount of newly uncovered archival footage is supported by talking head-style eyewitness accounts, which, unlike the more poetically conceived Ascension, are more representative of the classic, information-packed, expository documentary.
The Indian documentary Writing With Fire, by directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, lies at the border between these two approaches, although it leans more toward Kingdon’s observational conception. The film follows the attempts of journalists from Khabar Lahariya, the only newspaper headed by women from the Dalits, the lowest caste, to maintain their place in the world of independent journalism and, by extension, within caste society. The documentary vividly depicts the problems that women have to face on a daily basis in a society that looks askance at husbands who allow their wives to work and tolerates violence against women and people from lower castes. The film shows the passion and inner fire that these women must find within themselves in order to overcome all of these obstacles.
Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen takes a completely different approach in his film Flee. The documentary, which is based on the director’s interviews with his friend who goes by the pseudonym Amin, uses animation to tell the story of Amin’s adolescence, his escape from the war in his native Afghanistan, and his journey to Denmark. In individual sessions, reminiscent of visits to a therapist, Amin revisits key moments of his life as a refugee, which come to life in front of us in animated form, creating a fragile portrait of his search for himself and his attempt to come to terms with his past, as Jan Kinzl describes in his text for dok.revue.
A strong appeal for respect for human rights is a leitmotif that runs through the entire documentary category of the Oscars. Whether they are more formally conventional expository documentaries, observational documentaries, or representatives of the anidoc genre, the individual testimonies show the urgency and topicality of these issues, despite some of them portraying events from nearly fifty years ago.
Translated by Brian D. Vondrak
This article is a result of the project Media and documentary 2.0, supported by EEA and Norway Grants 2014–2021.