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Four documentaries to watch as the race to the Oscars begins

by Ace Damon
A scene from & # 39; The Cave & # 39;

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There is a kaleidoscopic variety of styles and themes at play in this year's Oscar-winning documentary nominees: from archival adventures outside the world to life and death stories, to intimate portraits of forgotten ways of life, all bound by the extraordinary personalities. in front of the camera. Here are four movies to look for when the list of documentaries is announced in December.

& # 39; The Cave & # 39;

Al Ghouta, Syria: Dr. Amani (center) and Dr. Alaa (right) in the operating room in a scene from "The Cave".

(National Geography)

Few dramas of fiction can boast of a hero as intrepid or personal as Amani Ballor. She leads a team of doctors at a makeshift underground hospital in eastern Ghouta – nicknamed "The Cave" – ​​as Russian bombs destroy what remains of the Syrian city above and often wreak havoc below. Amani, as she calls it, stubbornly perseveres with humor and steel nerves against the harrowing odds, captured with visceral immediacy by a fearless team of cinematographers.

However, the movie explores an even more complicated mission. "It's the story of a woman trying to treat society," said director Feras Fayyad. "Not only saving lives, but also changing society deeply, deeply within."

"The Cave", released by National Geographic Documentary Films, won public awards at the Toronto International Film Festival and Camden International Film Festival and follows 2017's "Last Men in Aleppo", an Oscar-nominated film about rescue workers. of the White Helmet in the Syrian Civil War, which Fayyad co-directed. ("For Sama," another notable Syrian film set in a bomb-ridden hospital in Aleppo, is also a contender for the Academy's documentary list, having won the top non-fiction film award at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Amani's struggles with his society's ingrained sexism and those who criticize his leadership for being a woman were a major concern for the filmmaker. "The movie connects with me personally," said Fayyad, who says he grew up in a family with many sisters and a strong mother. The film is made with them in mind, "but also an image for every woman in my society."

"Apollo 11"

A scene from ‘Apollo 11 & # 39;

Neil Armstrong in a scene from "Apollo 11."

(Neon / CNN)

A small step for humanity has become a big leap for filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, whose archival epic “Apollo 11” reconstructs the historic mission of placing a man on the moon. The project, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, gained two unexpected benefits: a 65-inch undeveloped mother of film discovered in the National Archives documenting the mission, and 11,000 hours of landing. Audio recordings 60 staff members during the lunar expedition.

Miller (who made the 2014 scientific documentary "Dinosaur 13") featured a newly developed prototype scanner to handle the volume of large-format film material, bringing to life its extraordinarily vivid details – captured by some of the top filmmakers. Hollywood – and turned to coding experts to solve technical problems with the intimidating volume of unsynchronized audio.

"Apollo 11" hit $ 12 million at the global box office, making it one of the most popular nonfiction releases of the year. The Neon launch brings Miller a full circle when he remembered visiting NASA headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Florida as a child.

"This movie for me was an attempt to understand what the mission was and what it represented," said Miller. "I don't think it really was until we went through the process of putting everything together that we realized how deep it is. For me, it is and remains the pinnacle of human achievement. The fact that so many people come together to make this reality absolutely fascinating to me. "

& # 39; Honeyland & # 39;

& # 39; Honeyland & # 39;

Muzafer Sam, left, and Hatidze Muratova in a scene from "Honeyland".

(Ljubo Stefanov / Neon)

Filmed with an exquisite look over four years of uninterrupted hiking trails to a remote part of central Macedonia, “Honeyland” tells the story of Hatidze, a 50-something beekeeper who cares for his invalid mother and cares for her. harmonious relationship with the bees she cultivates. The arrival of a Turkish nomadic family shakes this delicate balance with nature as new, noisy neighbors have their own needs.

"In documentary production, you never know when the magic will happen," said Tamara Kotevska, who co-directed the film with Ljubomir Stefanov, capturing 400 hours of scenes that were modeled on a feature film narrative that will be presented as international. from Macedonia. Oscar nominee movie. "They are a big part of her life and the best possible conflict in history. We stayed so long that they accepted us as part of their reality."

Macedonian filmmakers, whose work won numerous awards at the Sundance Film Festival, suffered unusual rigors during production and a variety of risks and hassles, be it the fleas that attacked Kotevska or the wolves that prowled the rugged landscape. There was also a language barrier, as some of his subjects spoke an "ancient Turk almost incomprehensible even to the Turkish people." Stefanov said. Working with four translators, the filmmakers found that they didn't need to make many changes. "I was impressed with part of the dialogue we had already used without knowing what was there."

"Sea of ​​Shadows"

Totoaba on the beach

Totoaba on San Felipe Beach from the documentary "Sea of ​​Shadows".

(National Geography)

It's called "sea cocaine": the swimming bladder of totoaba fish, which is sold by thousands to black market customers in China, who value their supposed health-enhancing properties. The fish represents a cash flow to hunters in the Sea of ​​Cortez, Mexico, whose nets provide a chain that links the Mexican cartels to the Chinese underworld. These nets also pose a serious risk to porpoise vaquita, a species that is dangerously close to extinction. In the suspenseful "Sea of ​​Shadows," cinematographer and director Richard Ladkani accompanies a team of conservationists, scientists, and Mexican police as they take on the destructive alliance.

"As soon as I dived, I realized it was a symbolic story," said Ladkani, an Austrian who gathered much of the team that made the 2016 elephant-hunting documentary "The Ivory Game," which also considers Leonardo DiCaprio as executive producer. "It's not about the vaquita, it's about what's happening to planet earth everywhere."

The seriousness of the topic made the value of production even more critical for the film, a National Geographic Documentary Films release that won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.

"We feel like we're in the middle of a thriller," said Ladkani. "We have an armed cartel and they are shooting people in the street, and we have former undercover FBI agents, there are hidden cameras and (people) infiltrating the Chinese mafia." them and also take discreet photos with various cameras of the operations as they fall. There would be no seconds seconds.

"It has purposely become more commercial," he said, "so we can attract an audience that can make things change."

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