The slate of IBF-supported films illuminates a wide range of creative documentary filmmaking: Downstream to Kinshasa (dir. Dieudo Hamadi), My Darling Supermarket (dir. Tali Yankelevich), The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (dir. Iryna Tsilyk), Aswang (dir. Alyx Ayn Arumpac), Once Upon a Time in Venezuela (dir. Anabel Rodríguez), The Letter (dir. Christopher King and Maia Lekow), and The Mole Agent (dir. Maite Alberdi) are all in the running for the shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. The latter three are also submitted for Best International Film, representing Venezuela, Kenya, and Chile respectively.
The titles disclose a strong representation of upcoming talent: five of the seven are debut features. Yet regardless of the number of films under their belt, none of the directors expected to be in the running.
“I’ll be sincere with you; I’ve never dreamed of all the wonderful things that happened to our film,” says Iryna Tsilyk, director of Sundance-winner The Earth is Blue as an Orange. “It always seemed to me that my universe and the universe of the Academy could not intersect in any way.”
“We weren’t even sure the film would be selected by a major festival,” explains Downstream to Kinshasa director Dieudo Hamadi, indicating that a potential Oscar nomination did not seem remotely possible.
Running the festival circuit in a pandemic
For some filmmakers, the Academy’s decision to extend the eligibility window by eight weeks did have a positive impact. As director Tali Yankelevich notes, the rule-change made it easier for her film My Darling Supermarket to become eligible for an Oscar nomination, after premiering at IDFA’s First Appearance Competition in 2019 and then screening at Brazilian documentary festival It’s All True.
“The occasion is now even more important to me since it allowed me to see the film with an audience, something that I didn’t know back then would become so rare,” she says.
Yankelevich’s experience is telling. Even in a year that turned the world’s film festivals upside down, the festival circuit continued to play an essential role in building the momentum that would ultimately lead up to the Oscars pre-selection. Alyx Ayn Arumpac's Aswang and Christopher King and Maia Lekow’s The Letter premiered at IDFA the same year as Yankelevich’s film, while The Earth is Blue as an Orange, The Mole Agent, and Once Upon a Time in Venezuela premiered at Sundance 2020.
“Since its participation in the World Documentary Film Competition in Sundance, our film has been in more than 30 festivals, mostly in competition, and has won 11 awards,” says Rodríguez.
Tsylik counts two dozen honors and more than 70 festivals for The Earth is Blue as an Orange, which she refers to as “a lucky baby.” Meanwhile, Downstream to Kinshasa made history as the first ever Congolese film in the Cannes selection. The film went on to screen at TIFF, where it picked up a Special Mention, as well as winning the Golden Dove at DOK Leipzig and gaining recognition at many other international festivals.
Getting creative on the campaign trail
But the journey isn’t over yet. Getting the votes of Academy members often boils down to the films’ campaign efforts, which requires considerable amounts of time and money—two things in short supply for most documentary filmmakers.
“It is quite a challenge, not only in terms of budget, but also in terms of information on how to campaign with a small film in a market we have little access to,” explains Yankelevich.
“Our campaign is currently completely organic and by word of mouth as unfortunately we have not been able to receive any support from the Kenyan government for an international campaign,” says Lekow. For her and co-director Christopher King, advice and other kinds of support from the Kenya Film Commission, filmmaker colleagues, and Academy votes has helped them “push in every small way” they can.
Hamadi reports that, as the campaigning process is entirely new to his team, they’re exploring whether the cast of Downstream to Kinshasa could lead their own campaign efforts.
Rodríguez emphasizes that even with the help of distributors and a publicist in the US, her team is a group of seven, mostly from Caracas, who are trying to reach more than a thousand Academy members. For them, alternative publicity methods such as social media have proven key to the campaign.
Regardless of the odds, these filmmakers rightfully note that there’s more at stake than merely winning an award.
“As artists working in a DIY industry here in Kenya, winning an Oscar would be huge for Kenyan and African film,” says Lekow. “It would put a whole new light on films coming out of the continent made by Africans. There are some incredible African films in the race for a nomination this year, and if one wins, we all win.”
“For Venezuelans which are part of a devastated society, it would lift our spirits and bring us force and courage to continue standing a very corrosive socio-political situation. And who knows, maybe it would catalyze a change in the country,” says Rodríguez.
Whatever the outcome, the reverberations have already been felt in the documentary film community. As Lekow aptly puts it: “The real power of film to trigger important conversations has been extremely emotional and incredibly intense. This process reminded us why we started making the film in the first place.”
Featured still: The Letter dir. Christopher King and Maia Lekow.
Editor's note: This article was corrected on February 1. A previous version of the article mistakenly stated that six films were submitted for nominations.