Review: Oscar-Nominated Short Documentary Films Explore Issues of the Environment, Community, Family and Politics

In order to qualify for the Academy Awards for short films (in the live action, animation or documentary categories), a film must meet two main criteria: one, it must play at a film festival specially sanctioned to qualify films for Oscars consideration; and two, it must not exceed a run time of 40 minutes. In the live action and animated categories, some of this year’s nominated films are barely 10 minutes long; in this year’s line-up of five nominated documentary films, however, each of the films is closer to a half hour, with two of them clocking in just shy of that 40-minute mark. It makes for a robust line-up when watched in succession, each film allocating plenty of time to feel like its subjects are given the attention they deserve.

In Haulout, directed by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, an environmental scientist in the arctic edge of Serbia dedicates months of his life to monitoring an annual migration of the region’s massive (no pun intended) walrus population. Filmed in a stark nature that matches the location’s harsh climate, the film silently follows the scientist through his daily tasks and observes the thousands upon thousands of walruses as they gather on the shore between feeding seasons. They’re only there because they have no where else to go; climate change has melted the ice and snow they typically depend on during this time. And it’s up to this singular scientist to document the entire, overwhelming thing. It’s hard to imagine anyone still unconvinced about the effects of climate change, but they’re completely undeniable while watching Haulout.

A father and daughter go on a years-long journey in How Do You Measure a Year?, a cinema-verité style conversation piece that’s crafted from the home movies filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt has been filming of daughter Ella for nearly twenty years. Every year on her birthday, he conducts a social experiment of sorts, asking her the same questions about life, her feelings and more, recording the answers to see how they change over time. The result is both fascinating and moving, as we watch Ella grow up from a precocious toddler to an anxious tween and a disaffected teenager. She takes her father’s interviews (mostly) in stride, and watching someone’s perspective on the world evolve and mature over so many years is particularly interesting.

Directed by Joshua Seftel, there is no way you will see where the story in Stranger at the Gate is going until it gets there, every twist and turn coming as an ultimately welcome (and relieving) surprise. A hardened ex-Marine with PTSD and a skewed perspective of Muslims following his service in response to September 11, Mac McKinney is everything you imagine him to be: tattoos, gravely voice, broad and muscular shoulders. At home in Muncie, Indiana, he’s struggling to acclimate to civilian life and finding himself more and more incensed by the Muslim community he encounters in his daily comings and goings. Seftel deftly unfolds McKinney’s complicated story, and to say more would ruin the impact of this deeply human story of how prejudice and hate can harm—and how community, kindness and authenticity can heal.

Elephants are known for being emotive, intelligent pack animals, making it all the more heartbreaking when calves are abandoned by their mothers and the herd for one reason or another. Enter The Elephant Whisperers, married couple Bomman and Bellie, who make their living adopting and rehabbing young elephants in need in rural India. The film centers on the rambunctious Raghu, a calf the wildlife authorities had all but given up on, but who the Whisperers manage to bring back to vibrant life through care, attention and plenty of play. Their work is as rewarding as it is demanding, and spending time with Bomman and Bellie feels like spending time with your doting grandparents. With sweeping drone footage of the forests where the elephants roam and personal interviews with the couple, The Elephant Whisperers is both expansive in scope and beautifully personal.

The most news-y of this year’s nominees, The Martha Mitchell Effect (directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy) is also the one I’d most like to have seen as a feature-length film, given how much ground there is to cover on this particular topic. The film recounts a specific episode in the life of Martha Mitchell, one-time wife of John Mitchell, President Nixon’s Attorney General and one of the conspirators in the Watergate Scandal. Mitchell (Martha, that is) spent that era of her life speaking frankly and without reserve about her husband’s malpractice and the questionable actions and motives of the Nixon administration, and she was subsequently persecuted for it in the media and socially, made to feel like a pariah and gaslit at every turn. She’s a bold and unique character, a woman who never minced words and stood up for what she believed in, and the only thing that would make The Martha Mitchell Effect better would be a longer run-time to allow more time to explore her story.

The Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films are now playing in select theaters, including Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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