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Oscars Documentary Shortlist Long on Music, COVID and International Stories

Films on the list of 15 include ”Summer of Soul,“ ”The Velvet Underground,“ ”The First Wave,“ ”Ascension“ and ”Faya Dayi“


Three music films, two COVID documentaries and stories stretching from China to Denmark to Zimbabwe have made the shortlist in the Oscars Best Documentary Feature category, which the Academy announced on Tuesday along with the lists of semifinalists in nine other categories.

The three music films are Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” which has dominated nonfiction awards so far this season; Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground,” an immersive and bold look at the seminal ’60s rock band; and R.J. Cutler’s “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” an intimate look at the singer that draws on home movies she and her brother shot from the time they were kids.

The pandemic stories are Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath,” which looks at the early days of the virus in China and that government’s attempts to cover up what was happening; and Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave,” which went inside a New York hospital in the devastating spring of 2020.


“Flee,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about a man who fled Afghanistan and made his way to Denmark as a refugee, made the shortlist in both the documentary and international categories, where it has the chance to become the third film in three years to be nominated for both awards – a feat no movie had ever pulled off until “Honeyland” did it two years ago and “Collective” followed last year.

Other films on the shortlist include a number of international stories set in China (Jessica Kingdon’s “Ascension”), Ethiopia (Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi”), Zimbabwe (Camilla Nielsson’s “President”), Syria (Megan Mylan’s “Simple as Water”) and India (Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s “Writing With Fire”).

The list also contains Stanley Nelson’s historical document “Attica”; Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Julia Child doc “Julia”; Robert Greene’s performative film with victims of clergy sexual abuse, “Procession”; and Oscar-winning directors E. Chai Vasarheyli and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue,” about the efforts to save a youth soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018.  

The shortlist was chosen by members of the Academy’s Documentary Branch from 138 eligible films. The voting system assigns certain films to each member but also allows them to view anything not on their required-viewing list, and since its institution a few years ago it has invariably led to shortlists that contain few surprises and most of the high-profile films in the running.  

Notable docs that did not make the shortlist include “Introducing, Selma Blair,” “Not Going Quietly,” “The Lost Leonardo,” “Rebel Hearts,” “Becoming Cousteau,” “The Sparks Brothers” and “Francesco.”

In the Best Documentary Short category, the 15 semifinalists include “Terror Contagion,” a film about surveillance from Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; “Águilas,” Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre’s story of volunteers who comb the southwestern American desert in search of remains of refugees who died trying to come to the U.S.; Jimmy Goldblum’s “A Broken House,” a New Yorker documentary about a Syrian refugee who builds scale models of the city he was forced to leave behind; “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker, about an illustrator who put hidden LGBTQ imagery in his advertisements; “Day of Rage,” a New York Times “visual investigation” into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol; “Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’,” which uses actual postcards issue to commemorate the lynchings of Black men in the U.S.; and “The Queen of Basketball,” a look at forgotten women’s basketball star Lucy Harris from Oscar-nominated director Ben Proudfoot.

Member of the Documentary Branch will participate in a second round of voting from Jan. 27 through Feb. 1 to select the five nominees in each category.  

Documentary features shortlist:

“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”
“Faya Dayi”
“The First Wave”
“In the Same Breath”
“The Rescue”
“Simple as Water”
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“The Velvet Underground”
“Writing with Fire”

Documentary shorts shortlist:

“A Broken House”
“Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis”
“Coded: The Hidden Love of J. C. Leyendecker”
“Day of Rage”
“The Facility”
“Lead Me Home”
“Lynching Postcards: “Token of a Great Day””
“The Queen of Basketball”
“Sophie & the Baron”
“Terror Contagion”
“Three Songs for Benazir”
“When We Were Bullies”