The 2021 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Film are eclectic, both in the topics they address and the style in which they approach them. There is a fiery exposition of a corrupt government. There is a thoughtful story about how to learn from an octopus. A movie is a kind comedy about older people that is also a kind of spy thriller. One is a gripping story of the disability activist movement. And one is a surprising personal story of a family struggling to stay together even in the face of imprisonment and endless bureaucratic burnout.
Taken collectively, the nominees show just how rich nonfiction filmmaking methods have become. Truth is always stranger than fiction, but filmmakers who shape truth in film rely on art and imagination to attract, frighten, and delight audiences.
Here’s a guide to the five nominees for the 2021 Oscar for Best Documentary and how you can watch them.
In 2015, a fire in a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, killed 27 people, and in the following weeks, 37 more, as a result of surprisingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in survivors. CollectiveCalled in part for the nightclub, it is an observational documentary that tracks conditions and exposes the huge deficiencies in Romania’s health care system that directly led to that additional loss of life. Documentary filmmaker Alexander Nanau captures the lies told by government officials during the aftermath of the fire; his actions eventually resulted in the downfall of the government, although it was short-lived.
Collective unfolds like a slow, chilling train crash, a study of how a government pushes its citizens to accept conditions that would be avoidable were it not for greed and corruption. In its second half, the film centers on a new young health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, who is trying to bring about change, while also showing the uphill battle and the eventual fruitlessness of his fight.
How to watch it: Collective airs on Hulu and is available to rent or buy digitally on platforms like iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Camp Crip It begins as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-looking “summer camp for the disabled run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former Jened camper) Jim Lebrecht explains. Soon it becomes the chronicle of a movement sparked by young people whose lives were changed by their passage through that place.
Camp Crip shows how the vision Jened’s youth at the camp experienced – that the world could be open to them too – led them to become community activists and organizers. The film is upbeat and inspiring, a story of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.
How to watch it: Camp Crip is streaming on Netflix.
The mole agent
Could you call The mole agent a spy movie, but it’s unusual, and it’s also unusually poignant. Documentary filmmaker Maite Alberdi lets us slip into a little subterfuge when Sergio, an older Chilean, is “chosen” as a new resident of a nursing home by Detective Romulo, who has been hired to investigate the facilities.
Sergio’s job is to infiltrate the house on behalf of Rómulo’s client and find out if the client’s mother is being abused; Meanwhile, the documentary makers follow Sergio and observe the neighbors of the house, who do not know the whole truth about why Sergio is there. The result is a sweet and surprising film, an interesting mix of fact and fiction that also explores the lives, desires and wishes of older people.
How to watch it: The mole agent is streaming on Hulu. It is also available to rent or buy digitally on platforms such as iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
My octopus teacher
Craig Foster was an exhausted filmmaker in 2010 when he found an unlikely remedy for his exhaustion: freediving in a kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa. Under the water, he began to feel alive again as he watched the animals and plants. He began to bring his cameras to film them. And then he met an octopus.
In My octopus teacher, Foster tells his story to directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, recounting his extraordinary experience against the background of images he shot under the reef. Follow the octopus for a year and form a kind of friendship with it, watch it get attacked by predators, feed on wildlife and approach it with curiosity. In the end, they mate, lay eggs, and die, a natural process, but in his lifetime, Foster finds meaning and understanding of our fragility as creatures on Earth. It’s a simple movie, but for submarine enthusiasts it’s special.
How to watch it: My octopus teacher is streaming on Netflix.
Heartbreaking and passionate Time it is the chronicle of a delayed love and the impulse to move forward that hope can provide. The film, which earned Garrett Bradley the Sundance Directing Award, follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years stubbornly requesting the release of her husband, Rob, from prison.
Since 1997, Rob has been serving a 60-year prison sentence for a crime he committed as a young man, one in which he and Fox were both involved. Meanwhile, she has been raising her six children and is becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community, while making home videos that, taken together, feel like a diary of your pain and resistance. Time details their struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates black families in America, as well as how the bureaucracy and centuries of the narratives hide the truth and the pain of these separations.
How to watch it: Time airs on Amazon Prime.
The Oscar 2021 will air live on ABC from Los Angeles on Sunday, April 25.