Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Watching the selection of short documentaries nominated for this year's Academy Awards, one gets a sense of how much work goes into getting them into shape, considering how most are independently produced. There's not a mask to be seen and only a brief mention of Covid-19, a reminder that for the most part, these shorts were shot before 2020, and between the time necessary to edit, do other post-production, and then travel the festival circuit before being picked up and nominated, films often meant to be relatively immediate can look like time capsules.

Not that all of them are necessarily built around looking at the world right now; two of the five are more personal looks into the past. It's an interestingly varied slate, at least.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

It's not uncommon to watch an Oscar-nominated piece that is pushing right up against the definition of a short subject and wonder if the original or ultimate intention is a feature, especially when the movie is something like "Audible". Filmmaker Matthew Ogens has a subject in Amaree McKenstry-Hall who has the sort of "ordinary life in unusual circumstances" situation that lets one connect and learn - Amaree plays on the top-tier football team of Maryland's School for the Deaf - and his film is put together well enough, but it could perhaps benefit from greater focus or room to get into more depth across the board.

Part of the issue is that most viewers have likely seen the broad strokes of Amaree's story plenty of times before, minus the "...and they're Deaf!", and the specifics of it never manage to take it to the next level. A coach gives out some sports-movie platitudes about them being underestimated; Amaree's father follows the familiar arc of walking out on his family, doing some time, finding God and preaching at a storefront church; Amaree and his girlfriend apparently had a fight and don't know what the future holds. It's material that has inherent power, and which could be even more intriguing if Ogens dug into what this means for these kids specifically. And I don't necessarily mean doing a touristy "how do Deaf kids handle this?" thing, but consider how an early scene is a montage of Amaree clearly being too rough on the field, but Ogens doesn't use this as a starting or ending point. It's seemingly not connected to the loss of a friend, and it's not something the viewer sees him grow out of despite his apparently being more centered later on. It's one moment relatively unconnected to others in the film.

It's also odd that one can't exactly tell what position Amaree plays, or even particularly suss out whether his team is really good or if their good record and long winning streak against other Deaf schools is because they're elite or because they're the best in a lower division. A documentary short isn't going to have the same sort of coverage that a big-budget feature or top-level sporting event does, but if the game is going to be central, it should help tell the story more. Meanwhile, there are other scenes that are too dramatically staged or cut between angles too much like a fiction film. It doesn't make one question the authenticity of this movie, but it does create a movie that doesn't quite become engrossing the way a documentary short can.

"When We Were Bullies"

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

It would be nice if Jay Rosenblatt's "When We Were Bullies" also tried to extract something universal from its specific group of (former) kids, but it instead winds up embracing its navel-gazing to the point of near-insufferability. There's an interesting idea or two at the center, but the main takeaway often seems to be that these Boomers really need to get over themselves.

Rosenblatt opens by mentioning that he has used the incident that inspired the film, a reaction to a stern teacher that turned into a pile-on against an introverted student, in a previous short ("The Smell of Burning Ants"), but that it still stuck with him 50 years later, and apparently did so for other classmates as well. So he begins a quest to speak to them, work out what it all means, and eventually speak to his fifth-grade teacher who is still alive and once again living in New York City.

There are questions to be answered here, about how these kids were primed to turn on "Dick" (as the fourth "Richard" in his class, he got the worst nickname) and how it apparently haunts them later, but it's a narcissistic sort of self-examination, rather than a systemic interrogation, with a great deal of talk about how making this film was something Rosenblatt had to do and asides of how he was going through something awful at the time, and little grappling with how Dick apparently decided he'd finished with this thing twenty-odd years ago. There's some cut-out animation and public-domain clips to cover the narration and phone interviews. Ultimately, though, Rosenblatt never seems to reach any conclusion beyond "I still feel bad and don't like it", and makes little case for this mattering beyond PS 194.

"Three Songs for Benazir"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

For Elizabeth & Gulistan Mirzaei's "Three Songs for Benazir", the history that has outpaced it is not (just) Covid, but the American retreat from Afghanistan and fall of the country to the Taliban. In a movie that already features one cut to how things changed while the filmmakers were away, it's hard not to wonder what the next jump would reveal, although that hardly makes this film feel incomplete.

Indeed, the Mirzaeis seem less interested in the way the world around young couple Shaista & Benazir is changing and how the present moment is frustrating. They're a delightful pair - Shaista is clearly besotted with his wife and the way she laughs at the songs he improvises for her shows that the feeling is reciprocated (as an aside, Pashto as a language seems impressively able to turn simple statements into beautiful music). But they're in a refugee camp, and options are limited: Shiasta has a third-grade education and hates making bricks, so the army seems to be the best way out, but joining is not so simple.

There is tremendous power in the setting - the clay buildings of the camp seem simultaneously temporary and ancient, a place likely meant to be transient but becoming a community of its own as the endless war continues. The surveillance balloon above them has an unnervingly bomb-like shape. It's a specific-seeming mire, but even if one doesn't really know what a regular life is for a young Afghan couple, it's easy to grasp this pair wanting and trying to live one despite everything. That's why "Three Songs" becomes an impressive example of what film can do, sketching out what's necessary to create empathy in a short burst.

"Lead Me Home"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Directors Pedro Kos & Jon Shenk don't have solutions to offer to the situation outlined in the opening text of "Lead Me Home" - that Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have all declared states of emergency related to homelessness in recent years - but if they've got rage, it's been buried under the same weight one sees affecting its subjects, whether they are the ones living rough or trying to help that group survive. There may be plenty of reason for anger, but it can't interfere with the work.

Though the unhoused people in the movie do speak their names and occasionally give their backstories, Kos & Shenk are careful with their narratives - the purpose here isn't to show how the system can be navigated, to celebrate success stories or highlight how any specific situation can put a person on the streets. Kos (credited as editor as well as director) and his team make sure that the viewer can follow these people but tend to only show middles of stories, giving a sense of how there's no single story but also showing the commonality of the experience. Homelessness makes people uncomfortable enough that they will often try to find a justification or (like the NIMBYs shown at a city council meeting toward the end) a reason not to engage, and the filmmakers do their best to make the situation clear without providing folks that escape route.

If Kos is in charge of framing in that way, cinematographer Shenk is the one who gives scale. He's fond of the shot that starts from a prosperous-looking neighborhood and pans slightly to show not just one, but several shelters huddled together. It repeats often enough to become a bit played out by a certain point, but it's a good illustration. The scale of these encampments seems to grow larger as the film goes on, and the film is impressively disciplined with how it uses scale: Tight, staring-into-a-camera framing as people tell their stories; something a little more broad as the unhoused go about their days and others try to help, and broad widescreen shots that show that this isn't just a couple of people here and there, but a large-scale problem. Without narration or talking heads, they make the clear point that the size of the problem as a whole is much larger than the people trying to fight it can handle, and the causes are too individual for a one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, the film can't help be a bit despairing, but also doesn't quite give into pessimism - these folks have to keep trying, after all.

"The Queen of Basketball"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

After four shorts like that, the people packaging the nominees must be extremely grateful to have Ben Proudfoot's "The Queen of Basketball" to end on. It's a upbeat movie whose subject is the sort producers must dream about - accomplished, charismatic, and apparently just waiting 40 years to tell her story.

Luisa Harris's story is pretty straightforward - born in Mississippi in 1955, she grew to 6'2" in high school and was the potential superstar women's basketball needed when Title IX opened the doors for more women in college sports, the only Black woman on her school's team. She was on Team USA when women's basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976, was drafted by the NBA's New Orleans Jazz, and then… Well, there was no WNBA back then. What's important is not so much the recitation of these facts but seeing how Harris carries this with her. She knows just how good she was, what she owes to her coaches, and what her place in history is, and she relates it in a way that suggests she remembers the joy of those days but isn't stuck there. Throw in enough quick bits of material backing up her words, and Proudfoot can build a nice rapport between her and the viewer.

He's conscientious with what he does and doesn't include, too - it's eventually clear that Harris is in a wheelchair now, but as this fact likely has little relevance to the story he's telling, he doesn't make a thread out of it, or dig too deeply into Harris not trying out for the Jazz, as the change in Harris's tone indicates that she maybe wonders what-if a little more than she says. The basketball footage is revealing; one can see that Harris was in fact very good while also showing that the women in today's WNBA are clearly next-level without diminishing her importance as a pioneer.

It's interesting to look at "Audible" and "Queen" as bookends to the presentation; much as the latter could easily be dismissed as a feel-good puff piece, it's got its eye on a message it communicates smoothly, while the former can't quite make its scattered nature a virtue. If I had a vote, I'd probably give it to "Three Songs" or "Lead Me Home", though I'm loath to handicap what a group that collectively decided "Bullies" was one of the year's five best in this category will say.

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