It’s not every year that India gets such a stellar reception at the Hollywood-dominated Academy Awards AKA the Oscars. While Naatu Naatu’s win for Best Original Song was more or less expected, it were the documentary categories that were bigger nail-biters.
Both Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes drew extremely positive reviews from critics and audiences alike. And yet it was only the former that could win in the Best Documentary Short category while the latter lost Best Documentary Feature to Navalny.
#TheElephantWhisperers wins BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT!!! #IndiattheOscars #Oscars #elephants congratulations to director Kartiki Gonsalves and producer Guneet Monga!! pic.twitter.com/kcz8dB29JH— DailyO (@DailyO_) March 13, 2023
So, what’s the reasoning behind India’s 50-50 track record in the documentary categories? There can be a few theories.
The Netflix original documentary won over Indian and global audiences with its moving tale of two orphaned elephants being raised by an aged couple of the Kattunayakan tribe in a Tamil Nadu national park. Part of the viewing experience was enhanced with the cinematography team that included Gonsalves herself as one of the four cinematographers. Mudumulai National Park seemed like the perfect setting to shoot a nature-centric film like this, complete with intricately-detailed footage of sunlit forests and flowing water.
Such aspects made it more cinematic and attention-worthy than its other competitors such as The Martha Mitchell Effect, another Netflix short that used archival footage to piece together the story of a woman who challenged the Richard Nixon administration both during and after Watergate. The film, while getting straight to its point, only ends up coming off as a conventional History Channel episode instead of anything more convincing and personalised.
ALSO READ: As RRR’s Naatu Naatu creates history with Oscar win, composer MM Keeravani pays tribute to The Carpenters
The Elephant Whisperers was however not the only animal-focused documentary as the beautifully tragic Haulout touched upon the disastrous effect of climate change on walruses. Quite a slow-burner with minimal dialogue, the documentary’s journey of a solitary marine biologist documenting the mannerisms of the walrus offers some truly haunting visuals that doubled for The Elephant Whisperers’ feel-good, tear jerking package.
And yet it was Haulout that was actually performing well at the documentary events preceding the Oscars. Haulout received top honours at Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films (Special Mention) and IDA Documentary Awards (Best Short Documentary). The other major contender in The Elephant Whisperers’ way was The New Yorker-produced Stranger at the Gate.
Executive produced by Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani-origin activist Malala Yousafzai, Stranger at the Gate is a 30-minute short on a former Marine who driven by post-9/11 Islamophobic hate, plans to blow up the local mosque in his city only to undergo a wholesome change of heart.
The film tugs at the heartstrings while balancing its fact-based approach, earning a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival and was the only one among this year’s Oscar nominees to be nominated at the prestigious Critics Choice’ Documentary Awards. In fact, many awards season pundits were also predicting Stranger at the Gate to bag the Oscar this year.
ALSO READ: Science Wrap (Oscars Special): All That Breathes, The Elephant Whisperers, Fire of Love and more…
But The Elephant Whisperers proved to be quite the underdog as despite being many an audience’s favourite, it still hardly had won any awards at major documentary festivals in the past. Yet the overall emotional narrative and breathtaking visual style would have swayed the Academy voters despite it having a slightly more straightforward narrative as compared to the other competitors.
With appearances in the year-end lists of 2022’s best movies by several Western publications, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes was quite a strong competitor for Best Documentary Feature. The hype was understandable given how Sen not only tells the story of two veterinarian brothers’ struggle to save the birds of Delhi but how his film also intercuts with B-rolls and long takes that feature nothing but the urban lifeforms in the city. From the focus on a group of rats to even microscopic water-based organisms, Sen's documentary stays true to its name in silently exploring all that breathes around the crew.
Despite its overwhelmingly positive response, All That Breathes could not win at the major awards with just an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) win for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Documentary Film (Ben Bernhard and Riju Das). Two major titans on its way to victory were National Geographic’s Fire of Love and HBO’s Navalny.
While Fire of Love is a visually-vibrant portrait of the late French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, Navalny is an investigative documentary on one of Russia’s most outspoken opposition leader and Putin critic Alexei Navalny (who is in fact right now in Russian custody). With both the documentaries sweeping in more significant awards than All The Breathes, it was a death match between these two competitors in the end.
Fire of Love had a relatively simple story to tell but the beauty of the Krafft’s grainy footage of grey smoke and red-orange lava was scintillating enough to set it apart. As for Navalny, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the depth of its subject matter added weight to its otherwise formulaic style of filmmaking. While Fire of Love won at Directors Guild of America, Navalny won big at the BAFTAs and Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. So, ultimately Navalny’s timely win at the Oscars didn’t come as much of a surprise.
But still, Shaunak Sen will not be forgotten for his subversive documentary that still managed to bring India on the documentary map, along with the work of fellow Jamia Millia Islamia graduates Rintu Thomas (who directed the 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary Writing With Fire) and Sarvnik Kaur (whose documentary Against The Tide won at Sundance this January and can prove to be a convenient pick for next year’s Oscars).