This year’s Oscar documentary nominees are terrific, and you can stream them all SuperNayr

The last few years have been boom times for two distinct documentary formats you’ll find plastered across streamers. The first is more akin to reality TV than anything else, often about a salacious crime or recent tabloid story, cutting between interviews with primary sources and experts and archival footage. The second of these genres — the celebrity documentary — is the glossier of the two. It’s usually well-shot and offers a veneer of intimacy with its subject… who grants the camera meaningful access to their life but more often than not is either an executive producer of the project or has some kind of quiet right of approval.

This year’s slate of nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film are a round rejection of mass appeal. Taken together, they mark a return to a pre-streaming era with films about people you don’t yet know (and one Ugandan pop star turned politician). And though these nominations haven’t come without controversy, with some in the industry who claim they’re a resentful response to a certain kind of success, they’re exactly the films we need in this moment, each pushing the art of nonfiction storytelling forward in different ways. All are available to stream and worth your time.

Four Daughters

Sometimes a documentary is so inventive, it reminds you how truly expansive this form can be. I have thought about Four Daughters a lot since I first saw it in December (at a lone 10:30AM screening at the only theater in New York that showed it). 

Without giving away too much, Four Daughters sits in a canon with films like The Act of Killing and Under the Sun, both of which embrace the artifice of film as a storytelling medium and turn it on its head. If documentary is a genre that exists somewhere on a spectrum between journalism and entertainment, in each of these masterpieces, it’s in the tension between performance and reality that we find truth.

Go into Four Daughters as blindly as possible if you want to feel the full weight of its impact in real time. It follows a Tunisian family — Olfa and her daughters, Eya and Tayssir — and asks them to relive the worst moment of their lives, casting actors to share the screen (and the burden). They’ll play many different roles: friend, therapist, journalist, shadow. They ask questions. They try to understand. They try to help us understand. They try to help Olfa, Eya, and Tayssir understand and process their own stories. The seven of them become a closed circuit and at times, the lines between them blur: they turn the past into a performance, and in fleeting moments, a broken family almost seems whole. 

Available for rent

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

If Four Daughters arrives at truth by way of performance, Bobi Wine, in contrast, is a deeply journalistic project that tells the story of a pop star-turned-activist’s fight for democracy in Uganda. Bobi Wine meets its namesake character at the beginning of his political career and follows him on his journey to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. It’s a difficult film to watch: Wine and his supporters suffer tremendous violence at the hands of an autocratic government. They’re repeatedly arrested, beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed. Co-director Moses Bwayo himself was shot at close range while filming. And yet through it all, Wine, his family, and Bwayo’s camera remain unflinching. 

At a time when democracy and freedom of the press face threats all around the world, Bobi Wine is as much a film about the rest of us as it is a film about Uganda. As I watched, I thought about films like Navalny, which captures Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s fight against Putin (winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary last year, and newly resonant after his death), and A Thousand Cuts, about former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on the media. Wine’s fight may seem hopeless, but hope is ultimately what drives him, and this film, forward.

Streaming on Disney Plus

20 Days in Mariupol

Produced by the Associated Press and Frontline, 20 Days in Mariupol tells the story of Russia’s invasion through the camera of Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov and his AP colleague Evgeniy Maloletka, who are the only international journalists left in Mariupol as the conflict begins. Chernov conducts interviews on-the-fly with civilians as they watch Russian tanks roll into their city and upend their lives — some embrace Chernov as their last remaining tie to the wider world, whereas others are skeptical and mistrustful, almost accusatory. Though it’s the least formally inventive of the category, Chernov’s rich and introspective narration is what grounds a film that could easily have been a compendium of distressing news footage. And make no mistake: the fact that 20 Days in Mariupol exists at all is remarkable. It tells a story that autocratic forces do not want told — a graphic document that captures the reality of war and Russian oppression as it is. Dead adults, dead children, dead babies. Bombed-out homes and hospitals. Chernov himself puts it best, somewhat cynically, talking about all the war he’s covered in Ukraine and elsewhere: “We keep filming but everything stays the same. Worse even.” 

Streaming on PBS (for free)

To Kill a Tiger

To Kill a Tiger tells the story of 13-year-old Kiran (not her real name) and her parents as they fight for justice after surviving a violent assault. It’s a portrait of resilience, and in this sense, it reminded me a little bit of Bobi Wine. Whereas Bobi Wine uses his platform as a musician to move into politics and push for change on a national level, To Kill a Tiger is a fight for national change that starts from the community up. Like Wine, farmer Ranjit is willing to sacrifice everything for what he holds dear, and he’s guided by the belief that change on a local level might help slowly shift the minds and hearts of his fellow villagers. Even when his plight seems desperate, Ranjit clings to the hope that a victory for his daughter might be a victory for other women and girls, and it’s with this resolve that he is able to go on. 

I had an extraordinarily difficult time finding a place (either streaming or in theaters) to see this film, and I was — frankly — a little confused. Now, after having seen it at a packed screening at 7PM on a Friday in February, I understand why: in a live Q&A, director Nisha Pahuja explained that she doesn’t want to use the film’s participants or their stories to sell tickets or promote the project (and indeed, the film itself opens with asking viewers not to post identifiable photos of Kiran). Living in a time where you can watch just about anything at just about any time, there’s something quite radical about that approach. To Kill a Tiger is a movie on a mission and it asks its viewers to take on the responsibility of being thoughtful members of its world.

The film was recently acquired by Netflix and will be streaming this weekend, just in time for the Oscars. We’ll see whether Pahuja’s requests to maintain Kiran’s privacy will be honored now that the doc will be on the world’s biggest streaming service.

Available on Netflix Friday or streaming for free through National Film Board of Canada

The Eternal Memory

Chilean journalist Augusto Góngora and his partner, Paulina Urrutia (Pauli), navigate his Alzheimer’s together. Góngora made a name for himself covering General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the film cuts between the past and the present, interspersed with home video and footage from his decades-long career. There’s a strange poetry in watching a man who spent his life preserving Chile’s national memory lose his own. If this were fiction, it’d be too on the nose.

The Eternal Memory is interesting to consider alongside the shortlisted American Symphony: musician Jon Batiste composing an orchestral piece as his wife (author and writer Suleika Jaouad) undergoes cancer treatment. Both films are love stories that let the viewer into a couple’s private world as they try to balance illness with creative practice. In The Eternal Memory, Pauli is a working actor who juggles her caretaking responsibilities by bringing Augusto to rehearsal with her. In the hands of different people, Augusto’s Alzheimer’s could make for a much darker film, and though The Eternal Memory doesn’t shy away from the weight of his disease, it’s a film that’s still full of joy and light, with Augusto and Pauli dancing, singing, and filming their way through the hard stuff. 

Streaming on Paramount Plus

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