Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Documentaries

Watani, Syria

Farah, in Watani: My Homeland

Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!

Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.

Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.

  • Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
  • Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
  • 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
  • Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
  • The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.

These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.

*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.

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