A documentary film has never won the Philosophy Talk Dionysus Award for Most Philosophical Film of the Year, even though documentaries are by nature bound to be interested in the pursuit of truth. Perhaps it’s because documentaries are less popular, often perceived as dull, dry, and preachy. Or maybe they are just not so widely seen, shown once on public television, or for a week in a few obscure art house cinemas, then relegated to some dusty archive.
But I love documentaries—they often raise complex philosophical issues and get us to question our assumptions. This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are no exception. They include films about workplace justice, the fragility of democracy, and the loss of a way of life. There are two films about the devastating war in Syria, one about women physicians delivering medical care under threats of patriarchy and bombs, and the other about a filmmaker trying to build a family under the siege of war.
These films also raise philosophical questions about what makes a documentary, the nature of truth, and the relationship between truth and values. The line between depiction, narration, and fiction is blurring and shifting, with a genre of documentary films emerging that is analogous to the “creative non-fiction” of writers such as Annie Dillard, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion. Documentary films not only tell stories, but also focus on what is told through the normative lens of the filmmaker.
So here’s the case for a Dionysus Award for each of the 2020 Oscar nominees:
American Factory: Dionysus Award for Questioning What Counts as Workplace Injustice
Fuyao Glass America opens an automobile glass factory in a mothballed GM assembly plant in Dayton, Ohio, employing both workers from China and American workers from the distressed local labor market. Amid the initial camaraderie, tensions soon surface about wages, working conditions, workplace safety, and ultimately efforts at union organizing. The film, a production of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, clearly supports the union and depicts the tactics Fuyao uses to defeat unionization in a way that has given rise to allegations claiming violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The factory ultimately becomes profitable in 2018, but only after making choices about automation reminiscent of predictions of a world without work.
The Cave: Dionysus Award for Perseverance in Acts of Supererogation
Physicians in an underground hospital strive to save lives of patients during the siege of Eastern Ghouta. The film is very difficult to watch: scenes of children hit by attacks of chlorine gas, and surgery performed under music rather than anesthesia. The women physicians work not only under unimaginably difficult physical conditions but also under constant criticism for performing roles judged not suitable for women. Director Feras Fayyad (he also made Last Man in Aleppo) is unflinchingly honest in documenting the siege. This is not a documentary that skirts the borderlands of nonfiction and fiction but a documentary that confronts the reality of inhumanity.
The Edge of Democracy: Dionysus Award for Best Personal Narrative of Political Despair
Filmmaker Petra Costa narrates the fate of Brazilian democracy from the election of Lula in 2003 to the impeachment of Dilma in 2016 and the current presidency of Bolsonaro. Costa shot most of the footage herself, which incorporates political speeches, protest rallies, interviews with her mother, and interviews with many of those most involved in the events. Her narration interweaves her perspective, her family history, and the events as they occurred. Costa is the daughter of leftist advocates and the granddaughter of an owner of one of the largest construction companies in Brazil. She questions how democracy can ever survive in Brazil, with its history of slavery, corruption, and rule by a tightly knit oligarchy of families who control major industries from the media to construction. Costa’s work has been described as exploring spaces between fiction and non-fiction; her passionate lament for democracy and social justice amid her depiction and interpretation of events press the edges of both democracy and the documentary form.
For Sama: Dionysus Award for Best Display of Humanity Despite the Inhumanity of War
It opens with the filmmaker-mother recording the bombing of a hospital in Aleppo and asking how her daughter—her most precious thing—can forgive her for bringing her into these horrors. Much of the harrowing footage was shot on a phone while Waad al-Kateab was documenting the situation in Syria during the siege of Aleppo; there are shots of injured and dying children and grieving mothers. As a mother, al-Kateab is starkly aware of the risks to the child she has brought into being. She asks a philosophical question widespread in reproductive ethics: whether it is permissible to bring a child into a world of suffering, even if the suffering is socially imposed and the child is deeply cherished. But there is happiness, too, and an ultimate escape to hope.
Honeyland: Dionysus Award for the Beauty of Sustainability
Honeyland is the story of a natural beekeeper in Macedonia and what happens when a large nomadic family moves onto the land. It is a beautiful, rhythmic film about ecological respect. The film has garnered great praise for its narrative power. I saw the film at Sundance in 2019, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. I learned from the directors in the Q&A that they had spent over three years accumulating the footage and that the narrative in the film as shown did not reflect the sequence of events as they occurred in real time, but had been assembled to tell the story in the most compelling way. As presented, the film raises multiple questions about sustainability of rural environments and ways of life. But it also questions whether chronology must always be the main organizing principle in the documentary film form.
I have no clue which one of these films will ultimately win the Best Documentary Oscar this weekend, but certainly each deserves a Dionysus Award.
Which films released last year made you challenge your assumptions and think about things in new ways? Send us your nominations and tell us why thoughtful people should see the movie you're recommending.