Friday, February 15, 2019

Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

The theaters in my area that pick up the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts almost always break them up into two packages, and it's usually a smart idea: With every entry pushing the definition of the "shorts" category to its limit, that's a chunk of time where a narrative feature would probably be given an intermission anyway. This year's program, on the other hand, clocks in at a relatively lean 139 minutes, or roughly the length of a Marvel movie, an hour less than its theoretical maximum length. Many places are still breaking it up, which is reasonable enough, as it's the sort of presentation where it certainly doesn't hurt to spend a little time resetting and reflecting.

That several of the entries are more compact is a blessing, but also indicative of something else: This year's group feels like a larger entry in what a documentary can be, whether short or feature-length. It's hardly the first time that a mix of styles has been featured in this category, and it's entirely possible that the five films chosen next year will once again be a set of films that all push the 40-minute barrier as filmmakers try to edit the year they spent shadowing a group of interesting people into something that pays like a feature but shorter, but the Oscar voters have an interesting set of choices this year.

"Black Sheep"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Consider "Black Sheep", the first entry being shown in theaters, which some purists may argue is not a documentary at all. A fair amount is Cornelius Walker recounting the story of his youth, when the murder of a ten-year-old Nigerian boy led his mother to pack the family up and move them from London to small-town Essex, only for Cornelius to discover the first time he left the house that the racism was much more overt there, perhaps more likely to lead to violence, with perhaps his best hope of getting through it to be to assimilate into the racist culture despite his own black skin. Though Walker's voice is a constant, what's on-screen is often recreations, with Perkins seldom using photographs or video of the younger Walker.

This sort of recreation may not pass a purity test, and it's often not necessarily more dynamic than stretching whatever footage or other images that can be found out; Perkins repeats the same images a few times, and sometimes a shot will be empty or abstracted in a way that marks it as not real, while the shots of Walker narrating in unwavering, head-on close up can feel just as artificial. It's effective, though, in how it bridges the gap between Walker's mouth the viewer's visual cortex; there's just enough space for one to get the impression he or she has witnessed events while still knowing otherwise. It allows one to make an honest memory.

It's got a fine subject in Walker, too; the young man can spin a story without making it a tall tale or exaggerating for too much dramatic effect, getting across the disbelief he feels for how he acted when younger while still understanding. He and Perkins make sure he doesn't waste words, letting the viewer fill certain gaps in more with experiences than prejudices, and they're smart enough to draw the line in an unexpected but logical place: This is just the story of how he got into a bad place; the story of how he got out or faced the consequences of these actions would be another short film entirely, and one I wouldn't mind seeing.

"A Night at the Garden"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Where "Black Sheep" is at one end of the documentary spectrum, "A Night at the Garden" is perhaps all the way at the other - it is entirely archive footage of a February 1939 "Pro-American Rally" at New York's Madison Square Garden assembled by filmmaker Marshall Curry, to the extent that when he is credited as having "produced, directed, and edited" this film, one may have a moment of wondering if a work like this is "directed", in terms of actually directing other people to do something to capture what one sees on screen. It's a terrifically effective bit of assembly, and certainly reflects his craftsmanship, but that's not how many people understand the term.

No matter, in terms of how well the film works. It's a tightly-constructed seven minutes that demonstrates just how overt the racism and anti-semitism of that time could be, with Nazis and their supporters filling the Garden and rapidly dropping the euphemisms like "Pro-American". It has room to show that there was resistance, and that entering this snake's nest to protest marked one as pretty brave. The music by James Baxter is not subtle in underlying the fascist intentions, and it's not hard to tie what one sees on-screen to current events, a sharp reminder that it absolutely can, as they say, happen here.

Curry is not subtle about this, even if he doesn't do a lot in the way of title cards or any cross-cutting with the present to drive his point home. It's interesting what he chooses to include and exclude and what that means, though - he includes speaker Fritz Kuhn saying that the audience knows who he is but does not actually identify him, whether to avoid giving Kuhn a raised profile decades later or to highlight that he has generally been left behind. Though there are multiple shots of the Nazi salute, the most striking one is a POV shot, reminding the audience that this isn't professional footage, but home movies, meant to be shown with pride later. And the way police handle protester Isadore Greenbaum becomes an interesting sort of Rorschach test - whether Curry meant it to or not.

"End Game"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Between the two comes "End Game", directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and it's in many ways more typical - it splits time between the University of California San Francisco hospital and the nearby Zen Hospice Project, following a half-dozen or so patients who have weeks or months to live, though not all have given up hope. They do a lot of makes a documentary about such issues work, maintaining a careful distance to show how the process works without inflating drama, but using interviews with their well-chosen subjects to keep everyone from seeming like mere data points. They never lose track of how, by the time audiences see this, the patients will be dead, but leavening that with positive attitudes and a few moments that acknowledge the presence of the camera and how it may change things. They capture people defining and discussing end-of-life care in a straightforward manner without it feeling staged, either as interview footage or a scene that feels inauthentic.

And in a certain way, all of this works because they have found a number of people who stand out even among people in extraordinarily difficult situations. At the hospice, Dr. Miller catches the eye immediately as a triple amputee, and he acknowledges that knowing his reduced limits informs the work he does there. Eventually, his passionate advocacy and true belief in the work they do becomes his most important feature, and while he (and his institution) can strike a viewer as almost impossibly sunny and well-adjusted, the film presents him as an attempt to counter one's skepticism without forcing it. At the hospital, cancer patient Mitra is striking as an example of how, though the disease and treatment haven't sapped all of her strength and ability to act, these decisions cannot be entirely her own, with husband Hamid and mother Vaji both forced to take more active roles than they could wish. The interplay between Hamid's desperate hope for a miracle and retired nurse Vaji's heartbroken pragmatism is what gets to the core of the family's choices.

The film's biggest issue is that these two cannot give the full picture that Epstein & Friedman wish to present, but at the short film scale, they quickly run out of room for more than quick glimpses. Those glimpses are affecting, but can feel like they're either diluting the things that the filmmakers are able to flesh out or like there's a feature-length version in their footage that covers everything they want to show better. It's still a fine film, just one where the industry's definitions may keep it from being its best possible version.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Skye Fitzgerald's "Lifeboat" is cut from similar cloth, only she embedded herself and her crew on a Sea Watch ocean vessel, Sea Watch being a German non-profit organization that patrols the waters north of Lybia, looking for boats of migrants trying to make their way to Europe. By the time their boats have reached international waters, most are in dire straits, as is the case in the operation shown here, where three boats crowded to bursting all need rescue.

Bookends on the shore give a clear picture of how the stakes are life and death and then some - death in this case is often anonymous and devoid of dignity - but for the bulk of the short, Fitzgerald and the crew (cinematographer Kenny Allen and editor Dan Sadowsky) do a fair job of just putting the audience on the water, letting the obvious lack of space for enough fresh water and supplies to cross the Mediterranean tell its own tale, letting the audience keenly feel the rescuers' desire to help and the simple practical difficulty of it between the language barriers, limited resources of their own, and panic and desperation. The filmmakers are quite good at making the film feel immersive when there's actually a fair amount of interview footage and captioning explaining situations and giving stories. Perhaps this is because almost all seems to be taken while on the ship, keeping everything in the same urgent timeframe rather than giving the impression of details filled in later, at their leisure.

Keeping the focus on the present does leave a few gaps that occasionally make it feel a bit over-bounded - there's a whole system on either end of this process that a viewer might want explained, from the Libyan prison camp many are escaping to the challenges those rescued may face attempting to obtain refugee status in Europe. For better or worse, that is not this film's immediate concern, and a short like this is arguably designed to show one link in a chain rather than the whole thing. That it can be seen as a shortcoming is, perhaps, testimony to Fitzgerald's skill and how compelling what both the ship's crew and new passengers are; it's hard not to be interested in the rest of their stories.

"Period. End of Sentence."

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The last film included in the package, Rayka Zehtabchi's "Period. End of Sentence.", is in some ways marked as a bit different by the captions at the end, which mention that the film and the project it covers were partly funded by Kickstarter and partly by high school students in Oakland California. It's not that crowdfunding is uncommon for short films or particularly hidden in the credits, rather that the clear but playful way the filmmakers make a note of this serves to connect the process of making the film to what it shows - people getting things done for themselves and young women leading the way. It's a last way to emphasize the themes of the film and maybe stoke ambitions beyond the subject.

Which, itself, benefits from the film having a somewhat less formal style than the other nominees. It drops the audience into a village about 60 km outside of Delhi, where a group of women has acquired a machine to allow for low-cost, people-powered manufacture of sanitary pads, no small boon in area where not only is the use of such things rather low, but where men and women alike can often be quite uneducated about the menstrual cycle. Zehtabchi and her main subjects poke at this with good humor, acknowledging the embarrassment of bringing the topic up but defusing it with laughter even as they also point out that the general ignorance and lack of accessible hygiene measures is a real problem. There are multiple scenes where women are seen going from being unable to talk about their periods to joking about it.

That doesn't disguise the genuine frustration and need for change that exists both above and below the surface, at how being unable to acknowledge biological reality is what leads to pads being treated as a luxury item and women as a result having fewer options. Zehtabchi pointedly doesn't offer up any convenient male villains - there seem to be some terrible husbands who aren't around at the moment - but instead highlights the passive acceptance that keeps bad structures in place. Dealing with one man isn't going o make a dent, but the film shows women building what they need more or less on their own.

Were I to have a vote, "Period. End of Sentence." would probably have it; it's quality moviemaking and clear communication that feels just right at its length. If I were a betting man, I'm not sure I'd want to bet against "Lifeboat", with "A Night at the Garden" the dark-horse favorite as the one that speaks most directly to the mostly-American Oscar voters' current concerns.

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