Oscar Gold 2018 – Documentary Short

Tonight we continue our coverage of the short subject categories, with Documentary Short, typically the longest of the set. I’ve seen the groupings four years in a row now, and twice there was a case where enough of the films pushed up against the 40-minute time limit that an intermission was necessary after watching three of the nominees, with the total screening time exceeding three hours.

At the same time, this category is becoming more and more accessible, as HBO and Netflix have become common homes for short documentaries, along with other streaming services. In fact, all of this year’s entries are available to stream right this very minute if you can’t make a screening of the whole set. Obviously I’d recommend going to a screening if you can, so as not to bias yourself in favor of (or against) the small sample size you can see. But if you can’t make a screening, do yourself a favor and stream what you can, because even if you don’t see the eventual winner, it’s well worth it to expose yourself to the brilliance of short filmmaking. As such, I’ll let you know here where you can see the nominees outside of the official screenings.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are:

Edith + Eddie – Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright
(Availability – currently streaming on Topic.com)
This film has become a darling of the documentary circuit, screening at dozens of film festivals, including AFI Docs. The story tugs at the heartstrings so much that Cher herself took it upon herself to produce (i.e. fund) the film’s distribution, and she tried to contribute money to the title pair. This is certainly a sentimental favorite.

In Virginia, an old white man named Eddie (age 95) and a black woman named Edith (age 96) fall in love and get married after the quintessential elderly meet-cute, lottery tickets. However, Edith has been diagnosed with partial dementia, and as such she needs a guardian to handle her home’s upkeep and her medical expenses. Her two daughters have argued over the custodial role for years. Rebecca lives close by and wants the job so Edith and Eddie can stay together. Patricia wants to move Edith to Florida, ostensibly so she can sell her house (Rebecca alleges that Patricia wants to get a head start on her inheritance). The dispute is sent to the courts, because if Edith does indeed need a guardian, then her marriage to Eddie is not legally binding (her not being of sound mind and body). The story turns tragic as the courts appoint a third party guardian, who makes decisions without even meeting with the couple. As such, the state’s involvement pulls them further apart.

The film succeeds when it just focuses on Edith and Eddie. They’re the most adorable elderly couple imaginable, and every moment we see is pure bliss. When it comes to the legal stuff, the film gets a little bit murky, because it’s clearly chosen a side well before the antagonists are introduced. I’m not saying those people aren’t in the wrong, but our view is already prejudiced beforehand, which undercuts the central premise of people acting in discriminatory ways, be it towards race or age. There are logistical questions that needed to be answered, but instead we go right back to playing with emotions. It is a very sweet, and very sad story, but it needed a bit more objective fact to inform things rather than manipulating on emotional grounds.

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 – Frank Steifel
(Availability – YouTube)
Sure is an odd title, right? Really, it’s just a reference from the main subject, artist Mindy Alpert, who deals with severe anxiety and depression. To her a traffic jam in Los Angeles is a very calming experience in the normally chaotic spaces of her mind.

Featuring lengthy interviews as well as anecdotes about her life, Mindy gives a candid look both at her mental issues as well as her artistic inspirations. Her illnesses are so bad that she has to take a literal stomach-churning cocktail of medications to control it (aided by GI drugs to prevent her digestive tract from breaking down). Mindy is also barely articulate, the end result of a mental episode that left her mute for a decade. Even though she can think clearly, she can’t perfectly communicate. One of her noted ticks is that she can’t verbalize the number zero. She refers to all zeroes as “circle,” including in the title quote of the film. Compound numbers are also a difficulty, forcing her to express them as a series of single numbers (for example, when she was 20, she calls it “two circle” years old).

You would think that this film would be an extreme downer, but instead it’s wonderfully uplifting. Despite her myriad issues, Mindy is an exceptional artist, chiefly in surreal pen sketches (which are animated in the film for effect) and papier-mâché sculptures; her signature piece at the end of the film is a bust of one of her doctors. She’s incredibly mature, even though she at times speaks like a child, and her sense of humor is beyond endearing.

My only minor critique is that I would have liked to know the nature of her disability earlier in the film. The jumps back and forth in her past aren’t linear, so I personally would have led with this particular piece of information earlier on, rather than in the last 10 minutes of the film, and even then it’s only because there’s no audible video of her past to use as a basis for comparison. Because of that, I partially divided my attention between the film and wondering in my own head what her issue with speech was. Was she always like this? Did she have a brain injury? Had they just stated early on that she had that muteness episode, then my mind wouldn’t have wandered.

Heroin(e) – Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
(Availability – Netflix)
This film is a simple three-way profile of three different women fighting the good fight when it comes to the opioid crisis, specifically in Huntington, West Virginia. The first is Jan Radar, a firefighter who is often called to the scene of heroin overdoses. She is eventually promoted to fire chief (the first woman in WV to hold such an office), and she’s both compassionate and urgent. She wants to save as many people as she can, and she takes no crap from her subordinates (including in one scene where she gives a firehouse life-saving drugs to administer to OD patients, and the firefighters are actually trying to get her to say they DON’T have to save them if they don’t want to – she’s having none of that). The second is a judge in the town’s “Drug Court.” She’s clearly caring, but she also dishes out some tough love, sending people to jail when they don’t comply with her recovery rules, much like a parent saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” right before spanking them. The third is an evangelical preacher who patrols the streets looking for prostitutes, especially the ones that’ll turn tricks for drugs, and gives them a bag lunch with bible quotes inside, hoping it’ll guilt them enough to make them go straight.

Two of the storylines worked for me, while one didn’t. Chief Radar and the Judge are colleagues in public service, so they interact a fair few times, and as such have a professional rapport. The preacher, on the other hand, is naive and ignorant. Now, West Virginia is a deep red state, so I understand the somewhat innocent thought that a bit of religion can turn anyone around like a magic salve. However, she also makes it clear that her empathy only goes so far. Basically, if the hookers don’t find Jesus, she doesn’t care if they end up in jail. She qualifies that by saying she wants the johns arrested too, but still, when you can that easily dismiss people just because they won’t embrace your particular view of faith because they live differently than you, well, that’s just ignorant and cruel in the extreme. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession for a reason. Putting John 3:16 in your BLT instead of bacon ain’t gonna convert anyone.

The film as a whole is a great example of women being a positive force for change in the world, and I applaud the earnest efforts of all three focal points, even the preacher. The main issue is whether or not the film is trying to showcase positive profiles, or if it’s just a “rah-rah” for women regardless of motivation. I tend toward the former, but I can certainly understand if people interpret the latter. And there are some unanswered questions that I felt needed to be explored. For example, why are there only like six people present when Jan is promoted? This is an historic moment. Fill the damn chairs, people! It’s called PR, look it up. As for “Drug Court,” it looks positive, but what happens to these drug convicts after they leave the program? Unfortunately, going to jail can basically be the end of your life, as once you get out, it’s almost impossible to rebuild and eke out a place for yourself in decent society. Does the judge do anything for these people afterward? Job placement? Regular medical checkups, particularly free of charge? It’s nice to be seen as doing something, but you’ve got to go the whole nine yards on stuff like this, or you’re arguably just as guilty as the criminals when recidivism happens. Rehabilitation is a very lengthy process.

Knife Skills – Thomas Lennon
(Availability – YouTube and Google Play)
Some of the lingering questions of Heroin(e) are answered here in Knife Skills, a spectacular and nuanced look at the rehabilitation process in the working world. The film focuses on Edwin’s, a high-end French restaurant in Cleveland. It is owned and operated by a man named Brandon, who got a second chance after he was arrested for possession in his youth. He was looking at 10 years in prison, but the judge was lenient and gave him probation. Since then he’s dedicated himself to making sure other ex-cons get that chance to rebuild their lives and be productive members of society.

In his restaurant, he’s begun a six-month program for ex-convicts to train and hone skills, from fine dining cooking skills, to hosting, to even becoming a sommelier. This isn’t just some minimum wage job at McDonald’s (ex-cons are sometimes lucky if they can even get that, as their convict status means that no one ever has to hire them again), these are professional career skills. The participants learn complex recipes and cooking techniques, and even find a joy in their work. After graduating the program, they leave the restaurant with solid experience they can put on a resume, and a strong work reference they can use to advance themselves and make a decent living.

But as I said, there’s nuance to be had as well, because this isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and it’s certainly not a case of a white man saving a bunch of black people. There are bumps in the road. There are arguments. Several drop out. Recidivism still exists. Out of the four workers featured in the film, two graduate, one drops out (a microcosm of the 120 who were whittled down to 40 by the end of the program), and another gets arrested again, though she vows to finish the program next time around because she’s actually happy in the kitchen. It’s not just a paycheck, it’s a purpose, and what’s amazing is that there isn’t some religious undertone to it all. It’s just a guy who got a second chance giving it to others, because he knows it’s the right thing to do. The government won’t help these people, so he takes it upon himself.

And for the record, Brandon is no angel either. In some of the most candid interviews of the entire film, he shows how much he still struggles with his past. He still thinks of himself as a worthless human being, destined for another fuck-up. He’s just as prone to getting himself back into trouble as those in his employ. That degree of honesty really works to lend the film credibility and not make the whole thing seem like a lengthy political ad.

Traffic Stop – Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
(Availability – HBO and associated apps)
In July 2016, video surfaced of a 2015 incident involving a teacher from Austin, Texas named Breaion King, who was pulled over for speeding in a Wendy’s parking lot. The stop was recorded on the police officer’s dashboard camera. After a brief argument about whether or not she can be pulled over after she’s already gotten out of her car, she gets back in to grab her ID. It is at this point that the officer (using her delay in putting her feet back into the car as enough of a “threat”) pins her against the seat of her car, then pulls her out and body slams her onto the ground repeatedly. He also pulls her limbs in myriad directions, claiming she’s resisting arrest, when really it just looks like she’s in pain and her arms are just trying to return to normal position. Ms. King looks to be barely 110 pounds, while the officer is easily twice that, and he’s tossing her around like a rag doll. He claims she took a swing at her, but the best I can see is a flailing limb while she’s in mid-air. Backup is called in and she’s eventually arrested.

The film, Traffic Stop opens with this graphic video, which has gone viral. The rest of the film sets its sights on two different targets. First, it claims racial bias in Ms. King’s treatment. I know it’s Texas, and I know the era we now live in, but there’s no real evidence of outward racism that I can see. It’s clear the officer used excessive force and that Ms. King posed no real threat, but there’s nothing in his speech or actions that suggests he targeted her because she was black. Also, by the time backup shows up, Ms. King is in full survival mode, adrenaline kicked in to an insane degree. But oddly enough she invokes Trayvon Martin as a comparison to explain her mortal fear. That’s an odd choice, as Trayvon was killed by a racist private citizen who was ordered by police not to pursue. There are literally dozens of cases of police killing unarmed black people that she could have chosen, but she went for the one that didn’t involve police. Like I said, odd. Also, her argument is sort of undercut when she (in her frightened and confused state) demands a black cop take her to jail because she doesn’t trust whites, and even then that black cop suggests that black people really are naturally violent and dangerous.

The other tangent is to show Breaion King for the woman she is outside of the video and her mug shot. She’s a former model, a caring teacher, a doctoral student, and a semiprofessional dancer. She was orphaned as a teenager, and had to earn everything she’s ever gotten. I wish the documentary had just been this in response to the viral video, as a means to say that her arrest doesn’t define her. But instead, it’s presented as something of a filmed defense affadavit. Everything she does as a normal citizen is commendable, but sadly, it only hurts her case.

Because, and I suppose this counts as a spoiler, as of the completion of the documentary, her lawsuit against the Austin Police Department is still pending. No word in the film on whether she was ever formally charged with anything, though she was arrested for the speeding and for resisting arrest, which I kind of call bullshit on, because how can you resist arrest when you don’t know you’re being arrested? Your body’s natural reflexes when you’re being tossed around concrete doesn’t constitute a conscious “resistance” in my mind, but my knowledge of criminal law is far from expert. Anyway, with the lawsuit still pending, this documentary could potentially taint a jury pool. She’s innocent until proven guilty, and the officer she’s suing is presumed innocent unless there’s substantial evidence to prove liability (since it’s a civil trial). The video is legally admissible as evidence, but given its viral nature, it’s already difficult to seat a jury (at least locally) who hasn’t seen it. Having this somewhat incomplete documentary could create a bias towards or against Ms. King depending on how an audience interprets it, and that could make finding an impartial jury that much harder, and if they’re already seated, this film could taint the pool even further to the point of mistrial, which is not in her interest.

This could have been extremely compelling, a testament to the different ways in which justice is dispensed for minorities. Instead it’s heavily biased and leaves a lot of legal questions unresolved, which could very much be to Ms. King’s detriment down the road. This should have been held off until her case is resolved. That way there’s no chance of tainting the trial, and we in the audience wouldn’t have felt like this was something of an incomplete entry.

My Rankings:
1) Knife Skills
2) Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
3) Heroin(e)
4) Edith + Eddie
5) Traffic Stop

Next up: The leading ladies have had their say, now it’s time for Best Supporting Actress!

Join the conversation in the comments below? Do you know any other ways to view these nominees that our readers should know about? Which was your favorite? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2018 – Documentary Short

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