When Oscar nominations were announced for the grueling 2020-2021 awards season, most observers breathed a sigh of relief to see a deserved, historically-diverse slate of people and films nominated across all categories. This was, of course, after an equally historic tactic was employed by the Academy itself to initiate a very public campaign pledging to root out inequality from within, beginning with newly-authored bylaws outlining eligibility regulations meant to increase inclusion and diversify its ranks. While some may celebrate this sweet moment of comeuppance for those who have been denied a seat at the table for far too long, I would like to take a moment to gently remind AMPAS that queer people still exist and also deserve to see their films, filmmakers and stories authentically represented with nominations and wins on the big night.
This reminder comes at the behest of one of the most baffling snubs of a high profile LGBTQ+-themed film in recent memory, namely David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, the searing feature-length documentary about the troubled nation’s very troubling anti-gay purges of the late 2010s. After landing on the AMPAS shortlist for Best Documentary, as well as a historic mention on the Visual Effects shortlist for innovative use of “Deep Fake” technology to disguise the identities of survivors of torture rescued by activists, the film was favored to be nominated in both categories by most pundits. There was a halo of goodwill glowing around the film in the press and amongst voters. And then, shockingly, Welcome to Chechnya was not nominated in either category. In the important cultural conversation following a history-making set of nominations, no one has bothered to question how or why.
Welcome to Chechnya is groundbreaking activist filmmaking from the previously Oscar-nominated France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson), a former journalist who has ambitiously become among the premiere documentary archivists of the post-Stonewall generation of LGBTQ+ filmmakers. His previous two films rely heavily on archival footage to reconstruct past events, while Welcome to Chechnya daringly unfolds in heart-stopping real time via hidden camera footage. The stakes are high and urgent; in France’s careful estimation, it’s that simple. This is a raw look at the brutality faced by queer communities the world over, a poetic punk rock piece of in-your-face filmed activism unfolding in real time to rescue endangered queer lives and to encourage those watching to convert their passive viewership into active participation. The film issues the bleak reminder that homophobia is still alive and well and that queer people remain, as ever, targets of state violence and societal abuse.
While this is a call-to-arms that clearly resonated with and appealed to AMPAS’ already-diverse and activism-minded documentary branch (the privileged group that whittles down hundreds of vetted submission into a 15-film shortlist), it was almost certainly the death knell for Chechnya’s Oscar futures. Only two documentaries about queer experiences have been nominated in the last 20 years: France’s How to Survive a Plague and Yance Ford’s Strong Island (please note I hesitate to include Ford’s as a “queer” film, but technically it counts, as it investigates family, community, grief and racially motivated killing from a queer lens).
Oscar voters at-large, the general membership who vote on all categories and for the eventual winner of the Best Documentary Oscar, tend to go with crowd-pleasers (Searching for Sugarman, 20 Feet from Stardom); while many skip voting in this category at all or blindly vote for whatever their friendly, local Oscar strategist is pushing that year. 2021 is the first time two black women have been nominated together in the Best Actress category since 1972 (Viola Davis and Andra Day—cis, hetero women playing queer women, natch!), so the likelihood of AMPAS members even voting for a documentary that promotes radical queer activism is dodgy to begin with. In the end, My Octopus Teacher will probably win because it’s life-affirming, beautiful to watch and crafted precisely to get the general membership vote of AMPAS. It’s not political let alone offensive. It doesn’t ask you to actively participate. It doesn’t ask you to think. All it asks is that you turn on your Netflix and tune out. It’s the kind of nonfiction cinematic escapism meant precisely to charm the AMPAS general membership into submission.
So gays, feel free to design beautiful clothes or do hair and makeup for some pretty young thing who will make red carpet wet dreams come true. Feel free to publicize your clients zealously. But if you’re making relevant queer content and are an actual queer person, the yellow brick road to the Oscars is going to prove elusive. If you’ve got queer films with cis, heterosexual people in them…well that’s another story. All of the conflamma around AMPAS and diversity is just that. Until the LGBTQ+ filmmaking community has a real seat at the table, there is no actual diversity, only the fig leaf of inclusive procedure followed by continued exclusion and the amplification of narrow viewpoints in the very category where it should arguably be the most political. Welcome to Chechnya will do its job of continuing to save real lives, and now it will also remain an evergreen reminder of AMPAS’ failure to close the loop on this perniciously circular discussion of queer exclusion.