CineWomen: Oscars edition
With ‘Time’ by Garrett Bradley, ‘The Mole Agent’ by Maite Alberdi, ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ by Jasmila Zbanic, ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ by Kaouther Ben Hania, and four Oscar-nominated shorts
For the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, two women have been nominated for best director: Chloé Zhao for Nomandland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.
Only five women have ever been nominated in the category, and only one has won: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. That was more than a decade ago, back in 2010.
The other women who’ve gotten the nod are Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties in 1977, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1994, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2004, and Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2018.
But they aren’t the only Oscar-nominated films directed by women this year. Below you’ll find reviews of documentaries Time by Garrett Bradley and The Mole Agent by Maite Alberdi; international films Quo Vadis, Aida? by Jasmila Zbanic and The Man Who Sold His Skin by Kauther Ben Hania; and four shorts across animation, documentary, and live-action.
Not covered below but worthy of your attention are two nominated docs that were co-directed by women: Crip Camp (for its galvanizing civil rights history) co-directed by Nicole Newnham and My Octopus Teacher (for its otherworldly octopus footage only) co-directed by Pippa Ehrlich. Plus several nominated films in non-director categories: One Night in Miami … by Regina King, Mulan by Niki Caro, Emma. by Autumn de Wilde, and The One and Only Ivan by Thea Sharrock.
I’m happy to hear that Zhao is the favorite to win best director this year — again, marking only the second time that the Academy will have selected a woman in the category — but based on the list above, it’s already a strong year for women at the Oscars.
In Garrett Bradley’s consequential documentary Time, Fox Rich documents the passage of it while her husband Rob serves it, sentenced to sixty years for a bank robbery they both committed when they were young and desperate. Fox did three-and-half years for driving the getaway car. When she got out, she dedicated herself to running a business, raising their six boys, and getting her husband out — a crusade that added prison reform activist to her résumé.
Bradley captures the last couple of years of this — Fox’s knowledge and confidence as a leader after years of wrestling with the system, the impressive paths of her grown and nearly grown sons, and her infinite code-switched patience (on the phone, at least) when dealing with the folks who hold her husband’s fate in their hands.
But Fox has been documenting her family’s journey all along with video diaries for Rob, and the home videos and new footage — both presented in black and white — are deftly interwoven to create an intimate, moving portrait of the Rich family and their struggle to reunite.
The film doesn’t delve into the details of the Foxes’ crime, or the complicated machinations that led to Rob’s sixty-year sentence, which might be frustrating for viewers looking for context for the empathy they’re being asked to extend.
But Time stubbornly refuses to provide it, asking viewers instead whether they believe in time served and second chances, and to bear witness to a prison-industrial complex built on the legacy of slavery.
Time (2020), directed by Garrett Bradley (Amazon)
‘The Mole Agent’
Filmed and scored like a spy movie, Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent is in fact a documentary set in an old folks home that sets out to expose institutional shenanigans but instead reveals familial failures.
Chilean private investigator Romulo has been hired to find out whether a matriarch is being mistreated by her nursing home. To get the real story, he needs a mole. So he hires 83-year-old Sergio to join the community as a resident, outfitting the technologically disinclined man with spy cams and FaceTime.
Meanwhile, Alberdi and her crew have already infiltrated the retirement home under the guise of making a documentary about the elderly — wittily presented with lots of flipping blinds and a James Bond-esque score, the film is also transparent about its process.
Sergio, it turns out, is perfect for the job. Personable, dapper, and spry, he’s an immediate hit with the overwhelmingly female population — except for his target, who turns out to be aggressively anti-social, especially around men. No matter: Sergio makes friends with Marta, the resident scamp with sticky fingers who’s waiting for her mother to free her from the compound, and Berta, a woman who has lived there for 25 years and swiftly falls in love with the newest arrival.
To Romulo’s exasperation, Sergio is anything but sly, but somehow the nursing home never catches on, and with little cooperation from the focus of his investigation, the mole’s assiduous notes turn to daily life in the community full of moments sweet and funny and also profoundly sad: Sergio confronts his handler with evidence that the family so worried about their mother hasn’t visited her once, and she’s not the only one. Meanwhile, the mission gives Sergio purpose and excitement in a life that had grown mundane after the death of his wife.
Warmhearted and poignant, The Mole Agent doesn’t erupt with the explosive scandal sought by the client so much as reveal a festering familial failure to care for our loved ones. Call your mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa. Better yet, visit.
The Mole Agent (2020), directed by Maite Alberdi (Hulu)
‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’
As a translator, wife, and mother to two grown sons, Aida (Jasna Djuricic) bears unique witness to the Srebrenica massacre in Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida? — the genocide of more than 8,000 men and boys in 1995 during the Bosnian War while the United Nations effectively stood aside.
Working with Dutch military leaders and doctors inside a UN compound where tens of thousands of Bosniak refugees have gathered, while her family is trapped outside, Aida gleans the danger of the situation even while asked to translate calm and hope to the masses — people she knows, people she loves.
With her UN badge, Aida has some privileges, but they only extend so far, and her desperation to save her family escalates as events unfold in a visceral, full-throated performance from Djuricic executed with controlled crescendo by Zbanic.
The horror experienced by Aida — and this entire town — is only emphasized in a devastating coda that demonstrates just how depraved these events were, and how profoundly the world failed them.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020), directed by Jasmila Zbanic (Hulu)
‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’
Inspired by a real work of art, Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin centers on Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian refugee who agrees to have his back tattooed by a famous artist, turning his body into a work of art displayed in Europe’s finest museums and sold to the highest bidder.
This macabre description belies the film’s romance — Sam agrees to the Faustian stunt in order to make his way to Brussels, where the love of his life Abeer (Dea Liane) lives in an arranged marriage — and the force of Sam’s personality. Passionate, impulsive, and proud, he is hardly the ideal candidate to ask to sit still and be ogled, though his foibles physical and personal make the artwork all the more interesting.
The art itself is of a Schengen Visa, a short-stay visa that allows one to travel most of Europe up to 90 days. The irony is, Sam would not have been able to secure such a visa if one weren’t tattooed on his back. By turning him into an object, the artist claims, he has restored Sam’s humanity. Thus the arrangement grapples with issues legal (like human trafficking) and moral (like exploirtation).
Working with cinematographer Christopher Aoun, Ben Hania aggressively uses surfaces and frames — doorways and windows, mirrors and beaded portières, off-center split screens — that resonate with the film’s themes around borders and display.
The end exerts a bit of an emotional whiplash on the viewer in an attempt to address inevitable questions and reach a satisfactory conclusion as both a romance and a biting satire. But what comes before — the scenario, the quandaries it poses, and especially Mahayni’s galvanic performance — is as indelible as the ink on Sam’s skin.
Among the animated shorts nominated for an Oscar this year, Burrow, directed by Madeline Sharafian is the weakest: a cutesy fable in which a bunny rabbit dreams of burrowing her dream home but learns there’s no shame in asking for help — a moral that’s not made expressly clear. Made on the cheap as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts experimental storytelling program, Burrow looks and sounds it. (Disney+)
The short documentary A Love Song for Latasha by Sophia Nahli Allison is indeed that, a cinematic elegy for Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl whose fatal shooting in a South Central convenience store contributed to the 1992 L.A. riots. Three decades later, her best friend and cousin remember her with intimate clarity against an avant-garde collage of home video, approximated reenactments by a rotation of actresses, and abstract imagery. (Netflix)
Documentarian Elvira Lind directs her fiction debut with the short The Letter Room starring her husband Oscar Isaac as an ambitious corrections officer who gets promoted to “director of prisoner communications.” Empathetic to a fault, he gets caught up in the love letters addressed to a death row inmate in a sweet, simple, yet profound story to which Isaac brings his formidable talent. (Vimeo)
Farah Nabulsi makes her directing debut with The Present, starring Saleh Bakri as a Palestinian man who sets out for the West Bank to buy his wife an anniversary present. But what should be an easy errand gets bogged down by checkpoints with segregated entrances and arbitrary soldiers in a maddening display of daily onslaught on human dignity. (Netflix)
2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films (2021), directed by various (theaters)