Oscar Documentary Nominations Shocker: ‘American Symphony’ & ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’ Snubbed, While International Films Dominate

UPDATED with reaction from documentary nominees. In an Oscar stunner, two films considered a lock for nominations failed to be recognized Tuesday morning in the Best Documentary Feature category: American Symphony and Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.

Instead, a group of five internationally focused documentaries earned nominations: National Geographic’s Bobi Wine: The People’s President, The Eternal Memory, Four Daughters, To Kill a Tiger, and 20 Days in Mariupol.

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Kaouther Ben Hania, the Tunisian director of Four Daughters told Deadline this morning, “We live in a world where everything is linked so people are interested what happened in Tunisia and Uganda [where Bobi Wine takes place]. It’s just amazing. It proves that we live in a world where people are more curious, more international, more open.”

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Documentary branch voters, who determine the nominees, shunned American Symphony, the film directed by Matthew Heineman about Grammy-winning musician Jon Batiste and his wife Suleika Jaouad. In a consolation, “It Never Went Away,” the song from the film written by Batiste and Dan Wilson, earned a nomination for Best Original Song.

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Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, directed by Davis Guggenheim, may have been dinged for winning four Emmys earlier this month, including the TV Academy’s equivalent of best picture, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. Deadline picked up talk that some doc branch voters were not keen on rewarding Still after it had won so many Emmys just days before nomination voting began.

‘Bobi Wine: The People’s President’
Bobi Wine

The international contingent within the doc branch flexed its muscle, giving love to Bobi Wine, the film about the titular Ugandan pop star who ran for president of his country against a dictator who has been in power for going on 40 years. The film is directed by Ugandan natives Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp. This is the first Oscar nomination for Bwayo and Sharp. They are also nominated for a DGA Award for Bobi Wine. (Our sources tell us Bwayo was asleep this morning when the nominations were being announced and only learned of his nomination later from a fellow nominee).

Director Maite Alberdi
Director Maite Alberdi

Chile’s Maite Alberdi earned the second Oscar nomination of her career, recognized this morning for The Eternal Memory. Her film tells the love story of Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia, two prominent figures in Chile, whose bond endured event after Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 62. He lost his battle with the disease in 2023. Alberdi says her first call after hearing of the nomination was to Urrutia.

“She was crying. She was very emotional, and she felt that Augusto would be super happy with this,” Alberdi tells Deadline.

Alberdi’s previous nomination came for 2020’s The Mole Agent, also set in Chile. The 2021 Oscar ceremony took place in the midst of the pandemic — the Academy scrambled to put it on at Union Station, in lieu of the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood.

“In that moment that we went to the Oscars, we were in lockdown in Chile with curfew for a year,” Alberdi recalls. “I took a plane to go to the Oscars. So that small party, in the context of that year, was the biggest party of my life because I couldn’t go to any party for a year. In my heart, it was a big ceremony in that pandemic situation.”

'Four Daughters'
‘Four Daughters’

With Four Daughters (Les Filles d’Olfa), Kaouther Ben Hania also earned the second Oscar nomination of her career. The film, which shared the top prize for documentary at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, centers on Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian woman who raised four girls, and then dealt with anguish after her two eldest daughters joined the fanatical ISIS Islamist movement in Libya. Ben Hania, who has worked in fiction and nonfiction previously, incorporated actors to portray the missing daughters, and well as Olfa.

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The director tells Deadline she had to verify that, indeed, her film had been announced as a nominee. “I wasn’t sure. So I checked twice and then I checked again and again and it was there [among the list of nominees],” Ben Hania said. “And then I came back and I checked again.”

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Olfa and her two youngester daughters, Eya and Tayssir, were en route by train to Munich for a screening of Four Daughters when they learned of the Oscar nomination. Their reaction was captured on video:

Ben Hania’s previous Oscar recognition came for the 2020 narrative The Man Who Sold His Skin, which earned a nomination for Best International Film.

As Deadline has reported, the ranks of the Academy’s documentary branch have swelled in recent years to include vastly more international-based filmmakers than ever before, under an initiative spearheaded by former doc branch governor Roger Ross Williams (Williams’ film documentary feature Stamped From the Beginning was shortlisted this year, but didn’t earn a nomination this morning).

Nisha Pahuja, director of the nominated To Kill a Tiger, sees a direct link between Williams’ efforts to expand the doc branch and the films that were selected today. “I think this is the result of that,” she tells Deadline. “I think that’s what we’re witnessing, just kind of an expansion of membership [of the doc branch] and ensuring that there is a multiplicity and diversity of voices in terms of people who have the ability to vote.”

To Kill a Tiger
‘To Kill a Tiger’

To Kill a Tiger, set in a village in India, tells the story of a family that fought for justice against long odds after their daughter was the victim of a brutal sexual assault by three young men. Among the film’s executive producers are Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, and Dr. Atul Gawande, the renowned surgeon and author.

Pahuja, who was born in India and grew up in Canada, tells Deadline she had tried to brace herself for disappointing news from the nominations. “I woke up thinking, ‘Okay, it’s just not going to happen. Manage your expectations. You fought really hard. You did good. You tried really hard. No stone unturned,'” she says. “There was that feeling of like, okay, it, it’s all good. But then when they actually called out our title, I was a little beside myself, I have to say. I couldn’t believe it.”

‘20 Days In Mariupol’ 
‘20 Days In Mariupol’

20 Days in Mariupol, which documents the devastating attack on civilians in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also secured a nomination. Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukraine native, directed the documentary, which is produced by the PBS program Frontline and the Associated Press.

20 Days in Mariupol premiered a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I’m really happy there is a chance for me with this Oscar nomination to make sure that even more people will see it and more meanings will be added,” Chernov tells Deadline. “It’s just what I owe to residents of Mariupol who have died and who have survived.”

Chernov tells Deadline he is at work on another documentary about Ukraine. He sees a disturbing shift in how the conflict is being portrayed in Russia.

“Now if you watch closely to what they say to their own public and how they build an internal policy is an idea that they are not at war with Ukraine. Sometimes they even skip Ukraine from thenews. They say, ‘We are at the war with U.S. and Europe.’ And that is something that actually very dangerous to ignore — that Russia is currently at war with us and Europe, maybe the rockets are not flying yet, but rockets did not fly immediately to Ukraine.”

Chernov adds, “It all starts with idea. It all starts with narrative, an internal narrative. And then of course, the fact that there is a loss, a certain loss of support [for Ukraine] from the U.S. and from Europe, then that also helps Russia to create their external narrative to neighboring countries. And this external narrative portrays the U.S. as an unreliable and weak partner, which is an idea they are really exploiting.”

The Oscars will be presented on March 10 in a ceremony telecast by ABC and hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.

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