Nature plays a key — along with Putin — in documentaries

Although many of the documentaries being considered for this year’s Academy Awards have emerged in the midst of the pandemic, the challenges have done little to submit a particularly robust series of nonfiction. Here’s a look at three notable contenders among around 144 films shortlisted on December 21st.

Maurice and Katia Krafft wear thick jackets near a smoking volcano in a scene "fire of love."

French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft captured the beauty and horror of living volcanoes up to the point of their deaths while filming on Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991.

(Sundance Institute)

‘Fire of Love’

Passion erupts all too literally in Fire of Love. The documentary about famous French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft follows the love affair of an intrepid couple who risked their lives for 25 years to capture the ravishing beauty and horror of living volcanoes in every corner of the world. This love was not only for each other, of course, but also for the volcanoes, and it led to her death while filming on June 3, 1991 at Mount Unzen in Japan.

The films they made see a new light in Sara Dosa’s bewitching romance from the archives, which has become one of the year’s most popular non-fiction books. The filmmaker was given access to around 200 hours of 16mm footage shot by the couple. “Everything seems so alive,” said Dosa, who discovered the Kraffts’ work while researching for her previous film, The Seer and the Unseen, set in Iceland. “From close-ups of bubbling lava to these gorgeous wide-angle shots of gas just gracefully emerging from a cone, they really have captured such profound portraits of the Earth.”

Dosa described some of this footage as “a bewildering and beautiful mystery” that nonetheless led to a deeper understanding of the Kraffts’ embrace of nature. Miranda July’s narration added another element. “We were particularly excited to work with her because of her tangible and poignant understanding of human relationships and the absurd beauty of love,” Dosa said of the artist and filmmaker, noting that the narration was partially inspired by the French style of New -The Kraffts would have seen wave movies in the 1960s.

However, what remains most compelling about the Kraffts for Dosa is the couple’s spiritual connection to the volcanoes. “It was like once they witnessed these powers, they couldn’t go back to the physical world they were born into,” she said. “It’s an element that has made us so rich as storytellers. Plus they were hilarious.”

In a scene from the documentary, a man confronts a black kite "Anything that breathes"

Salik Rehman is one of three men who tend to injured birds in the documentary All That Breathes.

(Sideshow Pictures/Submarine Deluxe/HBO Documentaries)

‘Everything That Breathes’

In the dangerously smog-choked Indian metropolis of New Delhi, brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud and their companion Salik Rehman take on the almost superhuman task of rescuing black kites: hunting birds of prey whose carnivorous appetites turn them into something like airborne garbage trucks. When the sick or injured birds fall from the poisoned sky, these men try to fix them at their wildlife hospital, a makeshift affair in a dingy basement.

“I felt like these were three Don Quixotes,” said filmmaker Shaunak Sen, who chronicles their rescue efforts in All That Breathes, which won a Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Every bird that finally flies… is a miracle, you know? And the fact that they’re going on despite the all-encompassing desolation gives a radical hope. These are micro-gestures that feel like life rafts.”

The documentary is notable for its striking visual design, which expresses the theme of “The city as a space in which human and non-human life constantly juxtaposes”. Exquisite cinematography (by Ben Bernhard and Riju Das) transforms the opening scene, a gathering of rats amidst a Stygian tableau, into something quiet and unexpectedly stunning. It’s just the first of several such sequences. “The brothers themselves are sort of philosophers,” Shaunak said. “The film had to make the audience think. I had to somehow find a poetic, lyrical quality.”

The Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in the documentary "Navalny."

The Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in the documentary “Navalny”.

(Sundance Institute)

With his leading charisma and media savvy, Russian resistance leader Alexei Navalny could just as easily be an action hero as Vladimir Putin’s greatest political threat. It makes sense that the film that bears his name would sizzle with the jet set intrigue and deadly stakes of a Jason Bourne thriller – a bold contrast to the usual documentary dynamic. Director Daniel Roher transports the viewer into the space where the businessman-turned-politician confronts his would-be assassin on the phone and later embarks on a fateful plane journey from Germany back to Moscow, where he was arrested in January 2021 and later imprisoned.

“We were in the right place at the right time and our cameras captured extraordinary dramatic events in real time,” said the filmmaker. “It gives the film an immediacy and a presence that really resonates with audiences.”

Maximizing the impact of her brief time with Navalny and his family, Roher was filming while the dissident was recovering from near-fatal novichok nerve agent poisoning in Berlin. The subject had his own reasons for granting such extraordinary access. “My crew and I had to understand that we were being armed by this guy for his own political goals and ambitions,” the director said. “And we understood that. That kind of tension between subject and filmmaker is woven into the film.”

Just a few weeks after the film premiered, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. Meanwhile, Navalny is in a Russian gulag. “I hope that through the film, Navalny can remind the world that an alternative vision of what Russia can be is possible,” Roher said. “…but ultimately I hope the film will help keep Navalny alive.” Nature plays a key — along with Putin — in documentaries

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