The Transformative Power of Empathy Unites 2021's Best Documentary Oscar Contenders

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The Transformative Power of Empathy Unites 2021's Best Documentary Oscar Contenders

If the fields of films contending for 2021 Academy Awards could speak, what would they say? In the case of Best Sound, it may be a gentle suggestion that the sonar pings and torpedo blasts of 1900s naval warfare are as compelling as sound drifting away to silence. Best Animated Feature might insist it’s desperately searching for other studios to recognize, despite the fact there’s two nominees in this year’s crop from the apple of its computer-animated eye, Pixar. Best Director would surely gloat about nominating two women for the first time, then hush up when reminded that seven female directing contenders ever doesn’t exactly make for the most flattering of historical contexts. And when it comes to Best Documentary, the message may very well be: While it’s one thing to live in the world, it’s another thing entirely to understand it.

One of the strongest fields of nominees at this year’s Oscars, the Best Documentary grouping—My Octopus Teacher, Time, Crip Camp, The Mole Agent and Collective—is also one of the most varied, shepherding audiences to infinite aquatic environments and thorny press conferences, physically occupied political offices and emotionally occupied dilemmas of fraudulent justice. Breaking down awards show competition typically means analyzing nominees on their individual merits, but this year’s Best Documentary contenders offer a rarer opportunity. To consider what makes each a standout is to recognize how each of these five stories—their subjects, settings and situations—together embolden a uniting ethos: The transformative power of empathy. They depict the radical decisions to do better by the world around us and, while the methods of portraying this common denominator vary in their subtlety, they’re uniformly effective in depicting the evolution of situational awareness into steadfast action. (They also provide counterpoint to Bill Maher’s recent suggestion that the Oscar nominees are too depressing, though that was a silly generalization to begin with.)

Viewing the field through this lens of empathy made cinematic is one way we can make sense of how an octopus, long-gone summer camp and prison reform advocate find themselves in the same Oscar category. Empathy is a crucial component to documentary filmmaking at the base of its foundation—and this applies as much to the audience as the observational filmmaker. You don’t tell someone else’s story without first noticing them, talking to them and learning more about them before presumably spending hours and hours—days and weeks and months, even—with them. Ultimately, we’re better equipped to recognize our own positions in the world having been exposed to the positions of others.

Consider the alumni of Camp Jened, described as no less than a utopia in the early minutes of Crip Camp. The movie begins empathetically—as Richie Havens croons “Freedom” in the background, various campers speak freely about the liberation of being somewhere where they’re not judged by what’s physically handicapping them. The catharsis is potent; they play baseball, swim, vote on what they’ll have for dinner, rise out of misconceptions of limitation, fall in love. That we see these images at all is itself a result of empathetic storytelling, considering the grainy 1970s archival footage was captured by a trio of People’s Theater videographers who were curious about the operation in all its unstigmatized glory before its closure. Their very presence, their willingness to spend time with Jened’s residents, is in itself a radical act.

“What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better,” says James LeBrecht, a co-director and one of the movie’s main personalities. That the Camp Jened segments of Crip Camp feel like lengthy prologue to the more sweepingly consequential scenes to come is indicative of how integral that realization by LeBrecht and his fellow campers was, and how integral it can still be for any marginalized group. Yet, even as Crip Camp grows into a chronicle of the efforts to manifest change at a federal level—efforts led by former camp counselor Judy Heumann—it remains emotionally and narratively tethered to the utopian Jened.

For the campers-turned-activists, returning to the status quo of everyday stigmatization had become an impossible thing to consider. As with other subjects in this year’s documentary field, they now possessed the emotional wherewithal to construct a better future atop the crumbled foundations of sociopolitical apathy that deemed them virtually expendable as human beings. “We literally believed we could beat the U.S. government,” one activist says. Such radical sentiment underscores the gains made in the as-yet-unfinished campaign for reform in Crip Camp and, while those systemic changes are counterbalanced by deeply internalized motivations for reform observed in My Octopus Teacher, they are presented as no less consequential.

My Octopus Teacher exists as a potent attempt to harmonize with the worldly and emotional perceptions of Craig Foster, a South African diver who forges a singularly strange and fascinating bond with an octopus following a plunge into lethargy. “I had to have a radical change,” Craig says about what was essentially his midlife crisis (and there’s that key word “radical” again). So he returns to the waters where he spent so much of his childhood, charting a course for his life and for a documentary that’s just as much about the nature of human fascination as the oddities of nature.

Foster’s empathetic understanding of the natural world as a place to completely invest oneself takes shape through his massive expenditures of time in the Atlantic Ocean’s depths. Some would (and do) refer to it as obsession, and it may very well be—the minimal involvement of Foster’s human family could be interpreted as prickly skepticism about his lengthy Atlantic sojourns, just as those sojourns are splendidly visualized. Key to dissecting the documentary’s peculiar central relationship is the subjectivity through which it’s explored, and it’s a perspective built on empathy as attention. In Foster’s narration there’s hints of someone working to justify to the audience all the hours he spends underwater with his tentacled friend (often he seems to be in conversation with himself, even when addressing the camera).

There’re no news headline montages or data dumps in My Octopus Teacher about how human apathy continues to wreck Earth’s oceans, but it’s impossible not to reckon with it as we watch Foster diving through stunningly captured kelp forests and gliding on top of calm waters as if he were skimming across glistening gemstones. What makes the movie intriguing is that inherent juxtaposition between the grandiosity of one human’s connection and humanity’s disconnection—the time the lonely Foster takes to understand the environment he’s known since he was a child and our understanding that, for every Foster, there are millions who would rather destroy the oceans than sympathize with its denizens.

Watching Foster’s solitary dives also exudes a funny tinge of familiarity in early 2021; they unintentionally evoke social distancing taken to an extreme. The images of flippers disappearing into the glassy water resemble someone making the most of a year when human interaction was limited. Not many people are probably going to celebrate a return to semi-normalcy by buying scuba equipment and diving into the ocean. But, after watching My Octopus Teacher, they might consider those massive sheets of aquamarine glass in a different light when taking a post-vaccine flight overseas. Foster’s oceanic explorations are vivid to the point that we understand a part of our world that much better as well—his obsession is our education. In the movie’s final minutes, Foster waxes poetic about how he came to “sense how vulnerable these wild animals’ lives are, and, actually, how vulnerable all our lives on this planet are.”

Despite Foster’s sentiment, “pandemic” isn’t a word that’s spoken in any of these documentaries. Thus, they have a time-bending effect on par with a Christopher Nolan joint. That is, they’re a reminder of a way of living that was, and a way of living that we may not entirely get back to for some time—they’re time capsules, arguments for action and motivating forces to do more than we’re asked to do. In today’s terms, that means looking beyond getting pricked in the arm. For The Mole Agent’s utterly charming Sergio, the world’s least likely secret agent—hired to infiltrate a Chilean senior care home where abuse is suspected—it means not ignoring his own pangs of sympathy.

The basis of The Mole Agent is as odd as it is purely heartwarming as we watch the residents of the senior home throw in-person parties and gently taunt one another. But director Maite Alberdi’s movie is smart enough to organically recalibrate from amusing spy saga into something drastically more melancholy: A portrait of bulletproof sympathy for the elderly Chileans who have been conveniently forgotten in their final years of life.

Though Sergio is outfitted with various eccentric 007-ready gadgets—a pen with a micro-camera, spy glasses and a musical score splitting the difference between John Barry and Michael Giacchino—it’s part and parcel with the movie’s ironies that his most efficient tool is the empathy he shows for the home’s abandoned denizens. Sergio’s mission is to observe and report back any neglect he might witness, and so Sergio does. However, over time, the neglect he becomes most sympathetic toward is the absence of loved ones coming to visit their elderly relatives.

“They fool Marta and make her believe that her mother is calling, but it’s really the caregivers,” Sergio says in one undercover report, his appearance of objectivity giving way to notes of concern. “They do this so she can be at ease because nobody visits her.” These are heartbreaking observations at a time when families have been barred from visiting their elderly relatives at nursing homes for going on a year. The pathos reaches a fever pitch when one of the home’s women laments having looked forward to joy in her old age that never arrived—partially due to her four “quite ungrateful” children that never visit. “I don’t reproach them because to each their own,” she says. “They have their own commitments. Life is cruel, after all.”

Despite Romulo—the M to Sergio’s James Bond—advising his spy to keep a low profile, Sergio spends his afternoons going into his fellow residents’ rooms, getting to know them and passing along messages of concern for as many as he possibly can. Later, he sends back a report about how he was “elected” king of the nursing home during its anniversary celebration, and while the amusing development was likely influenced by the presence of the cameras, it nonetheless reflects Sergio using his agency to be empathetically present for the abandoned residents—all the while doing everything but keeping a low profile. Sergio fashions himself into a friendly counselor for some of the home’s residents, a watchful eye for others, a truthful advocate for others still. Alberdi follows his lead, as The Mole Agent gently exchanges its espionage-inspired score for gentle piano melodies, indicating a movie tuning itself to its subject. It becomes a more multi-dimensional, satisfying and even incriminating documentary because of that adjustment—and the images are enough to make you want to visit an older relative the moment the pandemic has ended.

Whereas the selfishness indicted by the toffee-colored aesthetics of The Mole Agent is of a passive variety, the rot of political corruption has spread all through the shadowed environments of Collective—to such a degree that ostensibly safe spaces feel as if they’re being exploited by Romanian bureaucracy. The latter film is an overwhelmingly grim watch propelled by an underlying suggestion: Things are only getting worse. That makes the ironclad perseverance of the journalists we follow all the more heroic, and all the more likely to make us say: “Bring it on.” Even as their perseverance guides them (and us) further and further into a crater of institutional menace, conviction makes for a potent motivator.

If Foster’s effort to better understand his world takes him on colorful expeditions and Sergio’s to a pleasant sunlit home, the task takes on the shape of a wide stare into the bureaucratic abyss in Collective, whose subjects are engaged in a more politically significant mission—but one no less motivated by selflessness. What makes Collective so profoundly haunting is the unbridled disregard for human life that becomes apparent in the aftermath of a nightclub fire that killed 27 and would lead to the deaths of 37 more. There’s a staggering breadth to the corruption within Romania’s institutions which resulted in dozens of burn victims being inadequately cared for, and it makes the efforts of the everyday journalists at the Sports Gazette—a sports paper!—that much more remarkable to witness. As the doc goes on, those efforts feel increasingly rooted in the empathy of Catalin Tolontan and his fellow reporters—a belief, however impossible it may seem, in more righteous governments, systems and world orders.

“When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens,” Tolontan says when confronted about his diligence. “This always happens, worldwide, and it has happened to us.” Collective often feels like a cynical movie and no one would be blamed if they were to pour a strong drink as the credits rolled, their most pessimistic attitudes about political leaders confirmed. But the darkness of the story is juxtaposed with a collective willingness (pun only partially intended) by the everyman and woman to dig for answers (or, in the case of some hospital workers, to provide them behind the backs of their bosses).

This is a documentary that’s stylistic flourishes extend as far as its hardened fly-on-the-wall approach…meaning there’s little in the way of distracting “style” one would notice at all. That sensibility in itself is one of empathy; the filmmakers translate a subject of immediate consequence with an unvarnished lens and it makes intimate moments all the more powerful. In one such intimate, heated moment, Tolontan admits that a lack of questioning in the initial days after the tragedy empowered authorities to life. That Collective even exists as a movie is a testament to he and his colleagues’ refusal to look the other way any longer, and we’re urged to refrain from the same inaction for, well, the collective good.

“Indifference kills!” This chant from protesters at a Romanian rally may as well be the uniting theme of these Best Documentary nominees, as well as the defining takeaway from our pandemic era. It’s something Fox Rich—the subject of Garrett Bradley’s Time, perhaps the best of this bunch—has understood for two decades. For her, the endeavor to defeat systemic inequality is a daily one, because it’s a deeply personal one. Since the end of the last century, her life has been defined by that which is missing from it: Her husband Robert, sentenced to a 60-year imprisonment after the pair nonviolently attempted to rob a bank when they were young and desperate.

Rich turned this personal plight into an activist agenda. Amid her daily calls to the local courthouse inquiring about Robert’s potential early release (met with cruel apathy on the other end of the line), Rich speaks publicly about her experience, advocates for reform and dares to believe that foundational empathy and forgiveness could one day be strong enough to end the systemic incarceration of Black and brown Americans.

Time is pure pathos to the logos of Ava DuVernay’s 13th. The doc fashions itself into a literal time capsule, flashing back from the Rich of today to the Rich of 20 years ago through home movies—video diaries she began to record following her release from imprisonment and the early days of Robert’s sentence. (She took a plea deal; he did not.) In these intimate flashbacks, we see that she’ll be unable to turn a blind eye to systemic failings—that she’ll use her position not only as motivation to understand the issues of mass incarceration, but as a podium to indict it.

Bradley’s first cut from grainy home video to sleek digital camerawork—from late 1990s to late 2010s—contains years and years of “tomorrows’’ within it, doing away with and innovating the conventions of chronology. Yet the tomorrow Rich continues to fight for doesn’t come until Time’s triumphant finale. Even then, there’s a bittersweet note; her success is but a small crack in the foundations of inequality.

“My story is the story of over two million people in the United States of America that have fallen prey to the incarceration of poor people and people of color,” Rich says. For her, working for a better tomorrow has definitively changed the routine of today. She understands firsthand how broken the system is, and so becomes a model for the individual—taking the time to speak out against those fissures and their tendency to swallow up the lives of Black and brown Americans. The ripple effects of injustice reverberate with such force that they transcend generations: Rich and Robert’s twins, who haven’t known a day where their father was home with them, also become motivated by the possibility of reform.

In a university talk that Time repeatedly returns to, Rich discusses her experience with a room full of Black people—community, unity and empathy visible in every face. When such events have been impossible over the last year, the mere possibility is enough to motivate us. “Life goes on,” Rich’s mother says. “Keep hoping that, one of these days when you walk up in that courtroom, that this is it.” As with everything, saying is one thing, and accomplishing is another—if results were merely spoken into existence, the subjects of these movies would have been in a different place doing different things.

In a post-pandemic world, these Best Doc contenders may very well prove instructive in our attempt to vie for a better one moving forward. After a 15-months-and-counting period which felt closer to 15 years, these films remind us not just of a time when maskless crowds could safely pack small rooms and social distancing didn’t inhibit us from emotional connection, but of a world already lacking in the empathy required to remedy all manner of problems, from the personal to the political, that exacerbated the worst moments of the pandemic. To watch them now is to empathize that much more with the victimized, the abandoned and the misunderstood—and to recognize our parts to play moving forward. A week after Rich was released from jail in late 1999, she said, “I know that, despite how grim my circumstances may look right now, everything’s going to be OK. We’ll come back.” The Documentary branch of the Academy, it seems, would agree with her.


San Antonio-based writer and CCA member David Lynch regularly reviews new movies for the local CBS affiliate in between binging directors’ filmographies and wondering what he’ll do when he runs out of Blu-Ray shelf space. He can be followed on Twitter at @RealDavidLynch. And, no, there’s no relation.

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