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Review: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary

Theatrical Review


; N/A

Director: Various


Written by on February 5, 2019 




Ahead of the Academy Awards, we’re reviewing each short category. See the Live Action section below and the other shorts sections here.


A Night at the Garden – USA – 7 minutes

On February 20, 1939, Fritz Kuhn — a naturalized American citizen of German heritage who would later be deported — held a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden under the auspices of “pro-America” sentiments for Gentile-Americans looking to escape the Jewish-led media and Jewish Moscow-directed domination of labor unions. Twenty thousand white men and women attended with arms raised in Adolph Hitler’s salute towards this German American Bund leader against a backdrop of George Washington next to swastikas, stars, and stripes. Children cheered as twenty-plus police officers accosted a protestor, dragging him off the stage while Kuhn laughed. And some still wonder why we say white supremacy is alive and well today.

Director Marshall Curry doesn’t have to do anything but show this footage as it occurred with the briefest of statistical facts at the end to describe what else was happening at the time. He doesn’t have to follow it up with the parallel events we’ve witnessed at Charlottesville or elsewhere these past two years. He doesn’t even have to put a red and white MAGA hat-wearing “patriot” on display spewing hate towards the “mainstream media” to drive home the comparison. No, those contemporary images are ingrained in our minds thanks to a twenty-four hour news cycle ensuring we can’t sleep without knowing what’s happening. The hope here is then to jog the memories of the complacent, deluded, and ignorant.

We’re in the midst of an abhorrent cycle’s rebirth we thought we were smart enough to avoid. Some will label it something else, but you can’t deny the similarities. To therefore acknowledge how it’s genesis is here this time with operational concentration camps and walls threatening to be built only shows the audacity of this group claiming to support veterans all while spitting on the graves of those who died to prevent what they’ve been instrumental in creating. Curry’s A Night at the Garden may not seem like much on its own — simple newsreel footage — but its contextual existence speaks volumes. He’s put it together on PBS’ POV platform so nobody can pretend they didn’t realize history was on repeat.

B


Black Sheep – UK – 27 minutes

You hear it often: “Just fit in.” Parents say it to their children while friends wield peer pressure for similar goals. But those sentiments move beyond words when it comes to a world so ingrained with racism that some are deluded enough to believe it doesn’t exist. Actions begin portraying this mantra as a byproduct of those who deem to call others inferior. Racism at its core is a philosophy wherein a people demean “others” via violent, political, and/or psychological actions simply because they are different—a mirror with the potential to label them the “others” instead. Racists therefore crave homogeneity because they’re afraid of losing their societal control. They breed entitlement, work towards projecting it on a global scale, and actively fight to keep others under foot.

Cornelius Walker’s story might take place two decades ago, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny things have gotten even worse since. As a child of Nigerian immigrants, the London murder of young Damilola Taylor (also of Nigerian descent) forced his parents to take stock and leave. What they didn’t understand at the time was that the possibility of crime wasn’t something that disappeared upon moving to quieter suburbs. If anything it could actually grow when you add race to the equation. White populations love to preach gentrification as a means of securing safe havens because its inherent erasure of POCs provides them power. So while Essex may seem better than London on paper, it soon becomes far worse for a black family “threatening” its white way of life.

Director Ed Perkins’ Black Sheep places Walker on-camera to share his account of what went down as a consequence of his family’s relocation. It’s a static high-definition set-up that ensures we see every micro-expression of complex emotion conjured by the memories. Cross-cut with this interview are reenactments starring Kai Francis Lewis as an outsider lost within an environment that doesn’t want him — both the neighborhood’s white supremacist bigotry and the gradually destruction within his own home. We therefore watch as the family “in charge” of Walker’s community makes his life a living hell via Lewis’ constant run-ins with epithets and fists while the man himself finds it difficult to describe the violence he experienced behind closed doors too. This is the life those with privilege will never understand.

No matter how heart-wrenching this display of systemic racism proves (whether through the aforementioned physical means or economical ones via his father’s attempt to find employment closer to home), however, nothing can prepare you for the psychological cost of Cornelius’ attempts at breaking free. What he does to “fit in” becomes the crucial evidence more people need to comprehend so that we can make headway towards the fantasy that is a post-racial world. His life holds the receipts that reveal how demoralizing, self-destructive, minimizing, and complicit a phrase like “All Lives Matter” becomes in the face of something as powerfully cogent as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This is what it means to live with so much fear that you must denounce your God-given identity just to survive.

A


End Game – USA – 40 minutes

Two-time Oscar winner Rob Epstein and directing partner Jeffrey Friedman’s short End Game bills itself as an intimate document of medical practitioners on the cutting edge of palliative care. Despite my believing the doctors onscreen are exactly that via trust, the film as presented doesn’t do this thesis justice. Rather than focus upon these men and women (the head of the Zen Hospice Project is allowed a brief interview to share his own brush with death) or the new wave treatments they’re pushing, Epstein and Friedman decide to turn the camera onto the patients who must ask themselves what route towards death they’re comfortable taking. While that’s not any less important — I’d argue it’s more so — anyone hoping to learn about that so-called “cutting edge” will be disappointed.

A hospital-based doctor speaks with a dying woman’s family about harvesting her cancerous organs for research in order to perhaps prevent another from suffering the same way. The Zen Hospice caregiver talks about the spirituality of positive thinking and putting a beautiful façade atop grief as a means of coping with it. And another explains to her patient the cycle of chemotherapy. So in my mind that’s a post-death decision, faith-based distraction, and commonplace diagnosis. Cutting edge? Maybe I missed where this specific descriptor comes into play because I’m not sure anyone says or does anything here I haven’t seen before. Where the “future” comes in is the choice of environment. These patients don’t want traditional hospice care and thus are given the alternatives necessary to avoid it.

So we watch a couple of the conversations that take place with both in-patient and outpatient subjects. They are often informative yet light-hearted, serious yet kind. Those coping with the facts of their ailments generally receive just a single scene with a couple exceptions. Mitra — an Iranian wife and mother with weeks to live — is the sole character devoted real breadth beyond an overview session. She’s also the only patient who isn’t asked to make the decision herself. The doctors instead look to her mother and husband to weigh the pros and cons of what’s happening while holding onto hopes the doctors are quick to dismiss as the product of miracle rather than science. It’s Mitra’s trajectory that holds our attention to earn a majority of the runtime.

As such, End Game probably would have been better as a documentary strictly about her battle. One could say it already is despite the constant interludes of alternate settings and the similarly infirm. We simply don’t learn enough about the establishments and what differentiates them from each other to call this a film about the myriad ways in which we understand life and death. Besides one other patient and the Zen Hospice doctor attempting to find relevancy through marginally increased screen-time, everything else is noise granting a reprieve from Mitra’s ordeal and ultimately rendered less important by comparison. So while the whole is still valuable insofar as showing the love and care doctors should have for their wards, it lacks the narrative conviction to find its true purpose.

C+


Lifeboat – USA – 34 minutes

Director Skye Fitzgerald’s Lifeboat is the latest “human face” documentary to get an Oscar nomination. What might set it apart from others — for better or worse — is that it seeks to highlight the face of the man doing the saving as a beacon of hope more than the victims as byproducts of our collective failure as a species. His name is Jon Castle and he’s without a doubt a true hero. He also died this past year (the film’s rescues occurred in 2016) and thus a worthy candidate for a tribute. But while Jon says and does the right things, you can’t help watching the whole as a tug at heartstrings for white Europeans to wake up and acknowledge the problem they so easily ignore.

There’s something about the way the film is put together that makes it more infomercial than human-interest story. It does its best to not show the faces of these African refugees risking their lives in the knowledge that death is a better outcome than the present as statistics with a few interviews about human trafficking and forced prostitution out of Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, but those brief testimonials aren’t enough to look past the overall perspective. By putting so much of the onus on Castle’s head, this project becomes less about documenting horror than it does white guilt. Passages about how Europeans might find themselves needing escape during the next historical cycle of dominance on Earth only augment this fact.

So while the subject matter is important and its purpose to bring outsiders closer to the issue crucial towards sparking change, the runtime can’t give the situation’s complexities the scope they demands. It’s neither truly about the German non-profit Sea-Watch nor the Africans they save from Libya’s oppressive regime of criminality. By giving cursory context as a means to justifying the harrowing imagery while also devoting so much time to outsiders letting their hearts speak louder than minds, we’re merely watching a close-up of tragedy with no real interest in finding a solution. Those who feel that same ache Castle did already understand and those who watch similar footage on Fox News (see Mexican caravans) won’t be swayed. The former will donate money while the latter soundly sleeps.

C


Period. End of Sentence – USA – 26 minutes

The patriarchy in India is real. I went there a few years ago for a week with a friend of mine — a trip she organized and therefore had all our local reservations under her name. Regardless of whether they knew hers was a woman’s name or not, you can’t diminish the fact that almost every single person we met from tour guides to drivers to hotel employees made the assumption to come to me and call me by her name. It didn’t matter when we corrected them that she was their true customer. I was the one they engaged. At the time you laugh, but it’s not long before you realize what that ingrained conditioning can do to a country. We went to cities. Villages must be worse.

Cue Rayka Zehtabchi’s short documentary Period. End of Sentence. wherein she asks women of all ages about menstruation. Those who know the answer provide a giggle of shy mortification while those who don’t smile and ask her to explain. There are seniors talking about how the blood is dirty. Spiritual leaders teaching that you cannot go to a temple to pray to a female God because she won’t listen if you’re bleeding “dirty blood.” So you have a forced stigma fed to women from the moment they can understand religion until menstruation becomes a subject that gives taboo a run for its money. Sanitation is non-existent. Education is impossible since educators don’t know. And fear of constantly changing fabric cloths in proximity to men causes an influx of school dropouts.

Funded by students at Oakwood School in Los Angeles (where Zehtabchi is based) via the usual adolescent avenues of bake sales, Kickstarter, and whatever a yogathon is, the small village at the center of this film is gifted a sanitary pad-making machine. The developer of the unit provides an unbelievable statistic that less than 10% of India’s women use the product. So to be able to create an affordable, disposable, and effective product is monumental. But that’s only the beginning once we discover the village’s women will oversee the process with some elderly employees embarking on their first ever job. We’re experiencing a closed-loop economic chain empowering a gender to take control after centuries of men doing the equivalent of covering their ears at topics they find “icky.”

The result is a vibrant, funny, and important look at what happens when an underserved people are given the means and agency to be more than they’ve been told they can. With a sub-plot of one woman studying to be a police officer and another saying she earned her husband’s respect for the first time, it’s simultaneously inspiring and heart-breaking. All this joy, purpose, and life-saving potential arrived from one school’s charitable efforts and it doesn’t stop there since this act quickly reverberates far beyond a single village. This is true entrepreneurial spirit that looks towards the betterment of humanity rather than some false ideal of the American Dream hiding a sinful truth of greed underneath. Suddenly hope exists where one wasn’t aware possessing hope was even possible.

B+


The Oscar Nominated Shorts are in limited theatrical release starting February 8th. See the official site for more details and our reviews of the other shorts sections here.



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