Film

Review: Harrowing, Heartfelt Stories in the Short Docs Up for Oscar

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up at the movies this weekend, checking out the Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films may not be the way to go. A powerful, haunting slate of five short documentary films (ranging from about 8 minutes to a full 40 minutes), the films vying for the film industry’s top honors later this month are an intense group of stories steeped in the struggles, chaos and pain of our current global state of affairs. As is often the case with contemporary, issue-based documentary films, these five reflect back to us all too starkly the depth of our collective wariness as the world’s problems sometimes seem too significant to overcome. From racism to the refuge crises to facing death with dignity and resolve, these five films rank among the best documentaries of the year, regardless of runtime.

Black Sheep

Image courtesy of the film.

A Night at the Garden (directed by Marshall Curry, Racing Dreams) is the shortest film of the batch, an entirely archival documentary recounting the night in early 1939 that 200,000 Americans gathered at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a Nazi rally as World War II loomed in the not-so-distant future. The imagery, in grainy black and white, is as haunting as it is disturbing, swastikas hanging next to American flags as thousands make that despicable “heil” gesture and listen to speakers rail on against the “Jewish media” and the like. It’s a brief yet powerful reminder of where we’ve been, and where we can never allow humankind to go again.

Black Sheep (pictured, directed by Ed Perkins) finds Cornelius, a young black man from England, recounting the violent circumstances that led his Nigerian parents to move the family from London to the country in and effort to keep their children safe. Instead, Cornelius is confronted by a brutal, naked racism from his new (all white) classmates. Alternating between a fixed, direct close up of Cornelius as he tells the story and reenactments of its most intense moments, Black Sheep is at once about a teenager’s search for identity and a community’s dangerous closed-mindedness.

Director Skye Fitzgerald drop viewers in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in Lifeboat, as maritime organization Sea-Watch, a German-based fleet of rescue boats crewed entirely by volunteers, respond to distress calls and patrol the waters watching for refugees in need of help. Faced with slavery, human trafficking and other unthinkable futures in Libya, hundreds of people at a time pack into flimsy inflated lifeboats to make the dangerous journey to safety in Europe. Fitzgerald’s wordless observational style puts us in the thick of a very precarious situation as the rescuers navigate language barriers, medical emergencies and choppy waters (literally) in their effort to help the most desperate among us.

A poignant, sometimes tearful examination of death, End Game (directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) delves into one of (if not the most) vulnerable time in anyone’s life: the end of it. Weaving together several different stories, the filmmakers approach this sensitive subject with respect and reverence. A doctor who faced his own near-death experience as a teenager counsels those facing the end of their lives; a woman who receives a surprise terminal cancer diagnosis checks herself into a holistic hospice home; and a husband and mother face the difficult decisions that come with their wife/daughter’s final weeks of life. If the reality of our very finite time on this earth ever keeps you up at night (just me?), End Game is a film that, while it may not alleviate that fear entirely, goes a long way to soothe it.

Last (but certainly not least) in the list is Period. End of Sentence., directed by Rayka Zehtabchi. It’s a galvanizing story set in rural India where women don’t have access to adequate menstrual supplies like pads or tampons. Worse still, the very subject of menstruation is so taboo that the women can’t talk about it without giggling and the men are under the impression it’s some kind of female illness. Enter: The Pad Project, spearheaded by a man who invented a cheap, effective way to create disposable menstrual pads and is training communities of women to produce and distribute them. It’s a solution to just one of the many areas that need attention in this part of the world, but it’s nevertheless inspiring, as this one seemingly simple product (one so many of us take for granted) ultimately mobilizes the lives and dreams of women just like us.

As a whole, the Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films are an impressive group, each exploring important issues and stories with exceptional skill. As exciting as it would be to be a voting member of the Academy, I don’t envy those who have to decide which among these very worthy films should take home top honors at the Oscars later this month.

The Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films screen as a program, now playing at the Music Box Theatre.

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