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Even In A Film Category Full Of Global Issues, #OscarsSoWhite

An optometrist confronts the killers responsible for his brother's death during the 1965 Indonesian genocide in <em>The Look of Silence</em>.
Courtesy Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
An optometrist confronts the killers responsible for his brother's death during the 1965 Indonesian genocide in The Look of Silence.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the results of a new study on Oscar-nominated documentaries.

Hollywood may have shut out actors of color from its 2016 Oscar nominationsin the major acting categories, but there was notable diversity in other categories.

The nominees in the foreign language film and documentary categories tackle global issues from the present day — Ebola in Liberia, honor killings in Pakistan — and from the past: colonialism in the Amazon, the Indonesian genocide of 1965, the health impacts of the Vietnam War.

Although the subject matter of these films represent a range of diverse cultures and countries, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which calls attention to the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards, still seems to apply to the documentary category.

A new study, "Journey to the Academy Awards: An Investigation of Oscar-Shortlisted and Nominated Documentaries (2014-2016)" looked at 45 films that were shortlisted for the award and 56 directors (some films have more than one director). The findings: 89 percent were white and 77 percent were male.

So even when a film seems #NotSoWhite it can still provide evidence that the Oscars are still #SoWhite.

Here's a roundup of the trailers from this year's globally-minded nominees. Critics are saying Body Team 12 could take home an Oscar.

Best foreign language film

Embrace of the Serpent

Two white explorers venture through 1900s Amazon in search of a rare medicinal plant, guided by Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. Along the way, they witness the ravages of colonialism: orphaned children, destroyed cultures, the loss of rain forest land.


Five sisters from a conservative Muslim village in Northern Turkey are punished when they're caught socializing with male classmates. Locked in their homes, doomed to arranged marriages and ostracized from their community, each finds a way to rebel.

Best documentary, short subject

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
U.S., Pakistan

In Pakistan, more than 1,000 women are killed by family members in the name of "honor" each year, for example, having a boyfriend in secret. The film examines the interpretations of Islam that allow these killings, shares the story of one survivor and looks at human rights groups in Pakistan lobbying for new laws to protect women.

Body Team 12U.S.

Body Team 12 is tasked with the gruesome job of safely burying the victims of the Ebola outbreak in Monrovia, Liberia. Told through the eyes of the team's female member, Garmai Sumo, the documentary explores the body collectors' resilience and strength.

Chau, Beyond the Lines
U.S., Vietnam

Chau, a teenager physically disabled by his mother's exposure to Agent Orange left behind from the Vietnam War, dreamed of becoming an artist and fashion designer. Some health workers told him he'd never make it, but he pressed forward and proved them wrong.

Best documentary feature

The Look of SilenceDenmark, Finland, Indonesia, Norway, U.K.

A family in Indonesia discovers who murdered their son during the 1965 genocide. Unable to stay silent any longer, Adi, the youngest son and an optometrist, confronts the men while testing their eyesight — and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

Winter on Fire
Ukraine, U.S., U.K.

This documentary follows the violent unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

Worst snub

Beasts of No NationU.S.

This film, which won Screen Actors guild awards but wasn't nominated for any Oscars, tells the story of Agu, a young boy fighting in a civil war of an unnamed African country. Agu goes through unspeakable circumstances until he is finally encouraged to surrender to the U.N.

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.