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Yes, these 5 Oscar-nominated documentaries take on tough topics — watch them anyway

The Oscar-nominated documentary<em> Four Daughters</em> blends truth and fiction with rare transparency — you won't see another film like it.
Kino Lorber
The Oscar-nominated documentary Four Daughters blends truth and fiction with rare transparency — you won't see another film like it.

There's no way to soften the truth about this year's five Oscar nominees for outstanding documentary feature: They are all hard to watch. You should watch them anyway — all of them.

This is not only because they are all excellent, but because they are all imaginatively and thoughtfully made from strong points of view.

It would be easy to think of films about war and violence, about oppressive governments and medical fragility, as themselves medicinal — pieces you should watch to become a better person. And it's true that you will likely learn a lot about some of the most urgent issues we're facing. But these are beautiful pieces of filmmaking, created with patience and care, and they're moving even when they're painful.

All five are international films, which has led to some very silly grousing about the absence of a couple of high-profile American hopefuls, but it would be absurd to watch the films in this category and believe that a single one did not fully earn its spot. I've been watching this category for years, and this is easily the most fascinating and vibrant list I've seen. With every one of them, if someone asked me, "Should I watch this?", I would enthusiastically say yes.

20 Days in Mariupol

This collaboration between Frontline and the Associated Press gathers footage collected by Ukrainian AP reporter Mstyslav Chernov and freelancer Evgeniy Maloletka during the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. They were among the few journalists able to carry on with documenting the attack on Mariupol, a major port city, and their footage became indispensable to news organizations around the world. The focus of the film is on hospitals and other medical facilities, and the team filmed as injured civilians were brought into facilities where supplies were dwindling, power and internet could not be relied upon, and medical personnel was exhausted and traumatized, day in and day out.

The power of the footage would be enough reason to watch the film, but there are some very smart decisions in the way it's structured and edited. Because there was so little video out of Mariupol at the time, the team's footage often appeared in news segments, and sometimes we see the full story of, for example, a patient being treated, and then we see how a small snippet of the story was used as part of a larger report on a network. It's a vital look at how every glimpse you see on the news represents a much longer and deeper story. The act of editing all this footage down to about an hour and a half has to have been hugely challenging, but the result is outstanding.

To Kill a Tiger

To Kill a Tiger is about trauma and survival but also, discordantly, an extraordinarily beautiful film to look at. The use of color, light, and composition can be overlooked in considerations of documentary filmmaking when the themes are this powerful, but they are hard to miss here. For all of the pain in the story, director Nisha Pahuja deals tenderly with the people in it and the place where it's set. Watch it with the sound off, and you will see a stunning portrait of a family, a house, a village, and a city.

The film centers around a 13-year-old girl who has been raped by three men. Her father, Ranjit, blames himself for failing to protect her and is determined to get a measure of justice for her. (A side note: The filmmakers take pains to point out that she is now over 18, and made the decision after she turned 18 to allow them to show her face and to use interviews with her.) But neighbors and local leaders pressure Ranjit, repeatedly, not only to "compromise" with his daughter's attackers rather than pursue a case through the police, but to marry her to one of them. When his resolve flags, he gets steady support from local activists and attorneys who are working tirelessly on behalf of victims of sexual violence.

While the particulars of Ranjit's daily life are specific to him, it's easy to see parallels between his village and a town or a college that also pressures survivors and their supporters to think of the interests of just about everyone else above themselves.

Four Daughters

The most formally experimental of these nominees, Four Daughters is the story of Olfa, a Tunisian woman who lives with two of her daughters, but tells us early in the film that the other two were "devoured by the wolf." To tell the story of what that means, filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania uses three techniques. The first is interview footage with Olfa and her two remaining daughters, Eya and Tayssir. The second is what are essentially reenactments of important scenes from their lives. And the third is a behind-the-scenes account of the filming of those reenactments, in which Eya and Tayssir play themselves, while two actresses play their sisters. There is also an actress who plays Olfa in more difficult scenes, though she plays herself in others.

This is the story of Olfa's daughters who disappeared. But it's also the story of how making this film allows Eya and Tayssir to reveal things to their mother that they've never told her, and to talk about things they've kept to themselves. Olfa is a trauma survivor, but she is not a saintly, grieving mother; she is a complicated woman whose treatment of her daughters as she and they recount it often seems very harsh, even abusive. And perhaps the most fascinating element in the film is the way Olfa interacts with the strong-minded actress who's playing her, and the way Eya and Tayssir bond with the actresses who are, and are not, the sisters they've lost.

Four Daughters blends truth and fiction with rare transparency, and does it for a purpose. You won't see another film quite like it this year, or really any year.

Bobi Wine: The People's President

Many Americans are understandably skeptical of celebrities who become politicians. This is the story of one who became quite beloved.

Bobi Wine is a musician from Uganda who was known for using his music to talk about politics and the need for change. In 2017, he won an open parliamentary seat. He later ran against longtime president Yoweri Museveni, of whom he'd once been an admirer. Bobi, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be a charismatic and appealing figure who builds a large following among the people, and that following makes him a threat. His campaign becomes dangerous; his life becomes dangerous. Directors Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp follow Bobi and his family for a number of years as his prominence increases.

This would be a captivating story if it were only about Bobi Wine, or if it were only about Uganda, or if it were only about his relationship with his extraordinary wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi. But there are a lot of conversations going on in other parts of the world about what it looks like to have a democracy on the surface but not in reality. Here, you see arrests of candidates and their supporters, laws that are toothless and unenforced, and voting that is obviously manipulated. Museveni can be voted out in theory. The film is in part about whether he can be voted out in practice. Bobi Wine is well worth a watch for anyone, but particularly for people who are thinking about what guardrails prevent their own governments from winding up in the same situation.

The Eternal Memory

There are no interviews in this story of the marriage of Chilean journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife, Paulina Urrutia. It's just footage of the couple over the period after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Director Maite Alberdi follows Augusto and Pauli as she continues to care for him, engaging him in conversations that allow him to recover particular memories, or even to delight in hearing about events in his own life as if for the first time. Alberdi also documents his long history in journalism, including his participation in documenting the Pinochet government.

If you have known and loved anyone who experienced any kind of dementia, you'll likely find it both painful and moving to watch Pauli act on her determination to make his life as good as possible for as long as possible, and to watch him struggle with what he cannot do while also being still delighted by things he discovers he can do, can remember, can get pleasure and meaning from hearing about. This illness is grimly predictable, in that it moves in one direction only. So there is not the tension of hoping for a miracle that will restore Augusto's memory or his function, as there is in some stories of life with an illness. But the love story of these two, and the way Pauli makes her way through extraordinarily difficult moments in which he is upset or frightened, feels surprising over and over.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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