The documentary chapter of the US Academy has reduced the vast field of non-fiction contenders to just 15 films. Screen assesses the titles now competing to be among the five Oscar nominees — and ultimately to win the prize.

Doc contenders 2023

Source: Rise Films / Neon / CNN / Image’Est

‘All That Breathes’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Navalny’, ‘Fire Of Love’

In both 2021 and 2022, the Academy Award for best documentary feature was won by a film offering highly accessible subject matter, and also emotional uplift: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s tale of healing in My Octopus Teacher and then Questlove’s joyful music celebration Summer Of Soul. Bafta voters went in the same direction, making identical top doc choices for 2021 and 2022.

For 2023, many felt this recent voting pattern augured well for Amazon Studios and Amblin Entertainment’s amiable crowdpleaser Good Night Oppy — about the rover sent by NASA to Mars. But given the US documentary chapter failed to shortlist the film — and likewise a number of high-profile titles with celebrity subject matter, including Sr, Sidney, Selena Gomez: A State Of Mind and Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues — the category this year feels refreshingly unpredictable.

That’s not to say the 15 films on the Oscar shortlist for documentary feature lack accessibility, uplift or a sprinkling of celebrity fairy dust. But there is also a toughness, or a sharp political edge, or an experimental flavour — even among the most-fancied contenders.

A year ago, nominations for the Producers Guild Awards proved amply aligned with the US Academy Awards in documentary: all eight of the PGA doc nominees landed on the Oscar shortlist, and four of them (Summer Of Soul, Flee, Ascension and Writing With Fire) went on to be Oscar-­nominated. If history repeats, expect to see several of the following PGA-nominated docs snagging an Oscar nomination: All That Breathes, Descendant, Fire Of Love, Navalny, Retrograde and The Territory.

Missing from the PGA nominees list: Laura Poitras’s All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, considered a frontrunner in this category ever since winning the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival last September. Also missing: Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream, which made a splash at Cannes last May and went on to connect with audiences to the tune of a $12.2m global box office. Morgen’s kaleidoscopic celebration of David Bowie is one of two music-themed titles on the Oscar shortlist — the other is Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.

All three of the above mentioned titles, plus Navalny, All That Breathes and Fire Of Love, have made the equivalent Bafta Film Awards documentary longlist — and they are joined by four other titles that are not on the Oscar shortlist.

International stories

As with the 2022 Oscar shortlist, many of the 15 documentaries making it through the first round of voting tell international stories — from India (All That Breathes) to Vietnam (Children Of The Mist), China (Hidden Letters), Afghanistan (Retrograde) and Brazil (The Territory). Navalny, from Canada’s Daniel Roher, follows Putin opponent Alexei Navalny from poisoning in Russia to recovery in Germany and back again, while Fire Of Love sees US documentarian Sara Dosa track the globetrotting adventures of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. A House Made Of Splinters, directed by Denmark’s Simon Lereng Wilmont, celebrates the work of a halfway house for neglected children in eastern Ukraine — many of whom were impacted by the long-running conflict in occupied Donbas regions.

Among the films telling stories unfolding within the borders of the US, Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s The Janes spotlights the Chicago-­based underground service that provided abortions in the US prior to the landmark Roe v Wade ruling, while David Siev and Ondi Timoner both deliver emotional catharsis by training their cameras on their own families. Bad Axe tracks the Sievs as they battle to save their restaurant in the titular Michigan town during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last Flight Home tells the story of the Timoner family coming together to help their elderly father end his own life, following decades of physical diminution triggered by a stroke.

Oscar shortlist and Bafta longlist documentary titles  

A Bunch Of Amateurs

A Bunch Of Amateurs

Dir. Kim Hopkins
Winner of the audience award at last year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it premiered, Hopkins’ film documents Bradford Movie Makers, one of the oldest amateur filmmaking clubs in the world, as it navigates dwindling membership and parlous finances. UK National Film and Television School graduate Hopkins’ previous features include Voices Of The Sea, which began a festival run in 2018, and which chronicled a young mother yearning to escape her Cuban fishing village – to a potentially fatal American dream.
- Bafta longlist

All That Breathes

Dir. Shaunak Sen
Arguably the most consistently lauded of this year’s non-fiction competitors, All That Breathes has wins at Sundance (grand jury prize in the world cinema — documentary section), Cannes (l’Oeil d’Or) and BFI London Film Festival (Grierson award) under its belt plus the best documentary Gotham, a Film Independent Spirit nod, and more besides. New Delhi-based Sen follows Cities Of Sleep (2015) with this account of two brothers rescuing birds affected by the city’s toxic air. Distributor HBO Documentary Films made the Oscar shortlist of 15 last year with Simple As Water but did not snag a nomination.
- Bafta longlist
- Oscar shortlist

All The Beauty And The Bloodshed

Dir. Laura Poitras
Poitras was nominated for an Oscar with her first documentary feature as lead director — in 2007, with My Country, My Country — and then scooped the prize in 2015 with Citizen­four. She is in the running for a third nomination with this collaboration with artist Nan Goldin, who serves both as subject and producer. The Venice Golden Lion winner tracks Goldin and fellow activists as they pressure museums and art galleries to stop accepting money tainted by Purdue Pharma’s role in the US opioid epidemic. Neon’s North America release had grossed $287,000 at press time.
- Bafta longlist
- Oscar shortlist

Bad Axe

Dir. David Siev
Siev won the documentary audience award at SXSW last March with this debut feature named for his Michigan hometown — population less than 4,000. Bad Axe tells the story of Siev’s own family — including his Cambodian refugee father and Mexican-­American mother — as they battle to save their restaurant business after venues are ordered to close during the Covid-19 pandemic. IFC Films acquired the title after SXSW, giving it a limited North America release in November. Awards recognition includes a best first documentary feature nomination at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.
- Oscar shortlist 

Children Of The Mist

Dir. Ha Le Diem
Ha Le Diem makes her feature directing debut with this film spotlighting the child marriage conventions of Vietnam’s Hmong people, following 12-year-old girl Di who becomes the spousal target for a young male adolescent. Children Of The Mist — which premiered at IDFA in November 2021, winning the festival’s award for directing — explores the bride-kidnapping tradition of the Hmong, probing issues such as consent, family duty and the age of maturity. The film was nominated for best documentary feature at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards — losing to All That Breathes.
- Oscar shortlist



Source: Emmett Lewis


Dir. Margaret Brown
Documentary filmmaker Brown made modest awards headway with earlier features The Order Of Myths (2008) and The Great Invisible (2014), and now makes the Oscar shortlist for the first time with a film that boasts ample endorsements and credentials: Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground acquired Descendant with Netflix after its Sundance 2022 premiere, and Summer Of Soul Oscar winner Questlove serves as executive producer. Brown’s film investigates the legacy of the last slave ship brought to America, the Clotilda, which arrived with its human cargo in Mobile, Alabama in 1860.
- Oscar shortlist

Fire Of Love

Dir. Sara Dosa
National Geographic Documentary Films has scored three entries on this year’s documentary feature Oscar shortlist: Retrograde, The Territory and this account of volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, who perished in the 1991 eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen. Like Moonage Daydream, this is an archive-based film, requiring the co-operation and blessing of key gatekeepers — in this instance, Maurice’s brother Bertrand. Kudos for Fire Of Love so far includes nominations for the Cinema Eye Honors Awards and Critics Choice Documentary Awards.
- Bafta longlist
- Oscar shortlist 

The Ghost Of Richard Harris

Dir Adrian Sibley
Premiering in the Classics section of the Venice Film Festival last September, Sibley’s film celebrates the titular actor (a two-time Oscar nominee for This Sporting Life and The Field) through the eyes of his sons Damien, Jared and Jamie, who explore an archive of journals and mementos stored in their late mother’s lock-up. Sibley’s previous work includes TV docs Chris Packham: Forever Punk and the ISIS-themed The Road To Palmyra.
- Bafta longlist

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

Dirs. Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine
Hitherto best known for their 2005 feature Ballets Russes, Geller and Goldfine make the documentary feature Oscar shortlist for the first time with their film combining archive and newly filmed interviews telling the story of Leonard Cohen and his most famous song. The track began inauspiciously on a 1984 album rejected by his US record label, before building fame thanks to cover versions by John Cale and Jeff Buckley. Hallelujah — which Sony Pictures Classics acquired after play at Telluride and Venice in 2021 — was nominated for best music documentary at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.
- Oscar shortlist
- Bafta longlist 

Hidden Letters

Dir. Violet Du Feng
This Tribeca 2022 premiere was directed by Du Feng with co-director Zhao Qing — following their earlier collaboration on 2015 documentary Please Remember Me, which Zhao directed and Du Feng produced. Hidden Letters centres on two modern Chinese women who share an interest in Nushu, a century-old secret script used by Chinese women so they could communicate privately with each other. The film explores Nushu’s legacy of female solidarity as its two subjects forge their own paths in a culture steeped in subservience to men. Past nominations include the Spotlight category at the Cinema Eye Honors Awards.
- Oscar shortlist 


house made of splinters

Source: Final Cut For Real

‘A House Made Of Splinters’

A House Made Of Splinters

Dir. Simon Lereng Wilmont
Winner of the directing prize for world cinema — documentary at Sundance 2022, Lereng Wilmont’s film tells the story of several children living at the Lysychansk Centre in eastern Ukraine — a halfway house caring for the offspring of unfit parents. A European Film Award nominee and one of three titles on this shortlist to earn a Film Independent Spirit nomination for best documentary (alongside All That Breathes and All The Beauty And The Bloodshed), it is the second time on the Oscar list for the Danish director following The Distant Barking Of Dogs, which depicted a year in the life of a 10-year-old Ukrainian in war-torn Donbas.
- Oscar shortlist 

The Janes

Dirs. Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
The US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade last June has only served to make Lessin and Pildes’ Sundance 2022 premiere more relevant. Produced by HBO Documentary Films, The Janes celebrates the work of the titular Chicago female underground collective who helped women terminate unwanted pregnancies during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when abortion was illegal or heavily restricted in virtually all US states. Lessin was Oscar-nominated in 2009 alongside fellow director Carl Deal for documentary feature Trouble The Water, and the same pair made the Oscar shortlist in 2015 with Citizen Koch.
- Oscar shortlist

Last Flight Home

Dir. Ondi Timoner
Timoner twice won Sundance’s documentary grand jury prize, with 2004’s Dig! and 2009’s We Live In Public. She now makes the Oscar shortlist with her most personal film to date, which MTV Documentary Films acquired out of Sundance 2022 and gave a limited North America release last October. Last Flight Home depicts three generations of the Timoner family coming together for the last days in the life of 92-year-old Eli Timoner, a former airline executive whose health had been in decline for four decades following a stroke in 1982, and who opts to end his own life.
- Oscar shortlist 

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues

Dir. Sacha Jenkins
Imagine Documentaries’ Brian Grazer and Ron Howard executive produce this Apple Original film, following the life of the singer and trumpet player recognised as the founding father of jazz. Winner of the International Documentary Association award for best music documentary, it’s the latest from Jenkins, whose previous credits include 2015’s Fresh Dressed, which chronicled the rise of urban/hip hop fashion.
- Bafta longlist



Source: Sylver Entertainment


Dir. Barney Douglas
The Showtime Original film about the titular tennis legend premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last June, and went on to earn two Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards nominations – for cinematography and sports documentary. McEnroe is filmed wandering the streets of New York City at night, while he, fellow tennis stars and family members reflect on his life. Douglas previously made cricket-themed feature docs Warriors (2015) and The Edge (2019). Universal Pictures has UK rights.
- Bafta longlist

Moonage Daydream

Dir. Brett Morgen
Morgen was Oscar-nominated in 2000 alongside fellow director Nanette Burstein for their documentary feature On The Ropes — and he then made the shortlist in 2018 with Jane. Now he is back in contention with this feature celebrating the life and work of David Bowie, pieced together from the vast archive of material owned by the musician’s estate. Moonage Daydream, made with the backing of HBO Documentary Films, is the highest-grossing film of this year’s docs shortlist — delivering $12.2m for Neon in North America and Universal Pictures in international markets.
- Bafta longlist
- Oscar shortlist

Dir. Daniel Roher
Premiering a year ago at Sundance, Navalny has gained extra relevance and interest since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. This third feature from the Canadian documentarian, following Ghosts Of Our Forest (2017) and Once Were Brothers (2019), trains its camera on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — who survived an evident poisoning in August 2020, recovered in a Berlin hospital, and then returned to Russia in January 2021 where he has since been imprisoned. Navalny — which was produced by HBO Max and CNN Films — represents the first time on the documentary feature Oscar shortlist for Roher.
- Bafta longlist
- Oscar shortlist


Dir. Matthew Heineman
Heineman was Oscar-nominated in 2016 for Cartel Land, and then made the documentary feature Oscar shortlist last year with The First Wave, depicting a New York City hospital battling the Covid‑19 pandemic. Retrograde follows the US Green Berets in the final months of the war in Afghanistan, then switching its focus to the men they trained who are tasked with repelling the Taliban. The National Geographic Documentary Films release has already streamed on the National Geographic Channel, Disney+ and Hulu following a Telluride 2022 premiere.
- Oscar shortlist

The Territory

Dir. Alex Pritz
New York City-based Pritz makes his feature directing debut with a film that follows a young Indigenous leader in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, fighting back against farmers encroaching on protected areas during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. One of the documentaries on this shortlist notably using vérité footage, as well as serving as an advocacy film, The Territory incorporates material shot by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe. National Geographic Documentary Films acquired the film after Sundance 2022, where it won the audience award for world cinema — documentary, and Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures is among the producers.
- Oscar shortlist