Oscar Gold 2019 – Documentary Short

The Short categories are always my favorite part of Oscar season, because you get to see the whole set all at once, and immediately judge them against each other. And as it turns out, each of the three lists have four films that are all thematically similar in some way, with one oddball that doesn’t really conform. That lone different entry isn’t necessarily the best or worst of any given set, but it makes the categories even harder than usual to predict. You can never quite tell where the voters are going to go in any given year. Sometimes I pick the winner, sometimes I fall completely flat. I missed seven picks last year. Three of them were all three Shorts.

But again, we’re not worrying about picks right now, just breaking down the entries. Tonight we begin with Documentary Short, which tends to be the longest of the three categories. To qualify as a short, the film has to be 40 minutes or less. And more often than not, the Documentary entries push up against that time limit. Hell, the first time I saw this category a few years ago, the theatre actually had to have an intermission after the third film just so everyone could have a bathroom break. There’s one entry here that certainly doesn’t threaten the limit, but that’s not the odd one out.

No, the oddball here is that for four of the five entries, the subject matter is a real downer. Only one documentary is in any way positive and hopeful. God only knows if that’ll lift it above the fray or get it immediately eliminated. We’ll soon see.

However, one thing is clear with this set. Just like I was pissed at the Documentary Branch for nominating what I felt were the three worst films from the Feature shortlist, so too did they nominate a film that is just plain awful. I don’t necessarily have to be blown away by quality, but when there’s a film that so glaringly doesn’t belong in the mix, I get pretty steamed.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are:

Black Sheep – Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn
Produced and distributed by The Guardian, Black Sheep is an odd sort of documentary, in that the bulk of the stuff on screen is acted. A young man named Cornelius narrates the story while actors recreate the scenes he describes. He’s a black Londoner, the son of Nigerian immigrants. When he was a teenager, a 10-year-old immigrant boy was stabbed on the way home from school, near his estate house (in UK parlance, when you hear “estate,” think, “projects”). After the incident, Cornelius’ family packed up and moved to Essex, to get away from the dangers of the city. In their new small village, Cornelius is one of the few black people around, and it turns out the provincial folk are super racist. Little kids call him the n-word, and some hooligans beat him to a bloody pulp on his first day of school. Then things get interesting in very curious fashion. Cornelius decides to be one of the crowd by cutting his hair, buying blue contact lenses, and even bleaching his skin. All of this is in an effort to fit in with the very bigots who victimized him. It works, but it turns him into a petty criminal as well, as regardless of skin tone, he’s still hanging out with the wrong crowd. He even beats up another black man just to save face. It’s a thrilling and compelling story to figure out what would possess someone to abandon their heritage and their personal ethics just to be accepted.

But then the movie just stops. It’s completely abrupt. Just when we thought we were turning a corner to see how Cornelius’ life was changed, and maybe how it’s changed since he became an adult, the entire thing just ends. It’s jarring, and it rips you right out of the experience. I partly wonder if this was just Part One of a larger series. It would make sense, and it wouldn’t be unprecedented, as one of the Animated Short nominees last year, Revolting Rhymes, was the first of a two-part series on Netflix. But here, it just ruins all the narrative goodwill built up over the previous 20 minutes. We didn’t get a complete story.

End Game – Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Available on Netflix, End Game is very similar to another Netflix short that was nominated in this field two years ago, Extremis. Both films deal with end-of-life care. With Extremis, there was something of an emergency triage vibe, as people in intensive care had to make fairly quick decisions, with little to no hope for their loved ones to survive, and a few of the medical professionals depicted in the film – doctors and nurses – came off as blunt and a bit gruff, which was germane to the story because they’ve seen so much death and misery that they’re somewhat numb to it.

Here though, the focus is on palliative care and hospice. The doctors and social workers are depicted as much more compassionate this time around, as they guide people towards the tough decisions. While several people are given camera time, the main focus is on a woman named Mitra, an Iranian-American who has terminal cancer. She has a few moments of lucidity, but she certainly isn’t of sound mind to make her own decisions. It’s then left to her husband and mother to decide when and how she’s going to die, and it’s heartbreaking to watch, just as it is for all the doomed patients. The main doctor, himself a triple amputee because of a stupid accident in his college days, comes off as enlightened and caring, but at the same time, it’s a bit creepy how he almost tries to convince everyone to choose the quickest death possible. He even tells one woman to “make friends with Death,” which just sounds weird.

Lifeboat – Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser
There have been plenty of documentaries over the last few years about the refugee crisis. Fire at Sea was nominated in the Feature category a couple years ago, and was Italy’s official entry for Foreign Language. A separate feature from Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, was shortlisted last year. Unlike those other films, this one focuses more on the rescues at sea, rather than the conditions being fled or the logistical nightmare once the survivors make it ashore.

A German volunteer ship led by an English captain patrols the Mediterranean just north of the International Waters line beyond Libya, from which many refugee boats are launched. A good number of those boats capsize, and even in the ones that don’t, they’re so overcrowded that many people die in the attempt to cross the sea, usually due to being suffocated from the lack of space or succumbing to heat stroke. This volunteer ship, and others like it, find the boats and evacuate the refugees, getting them safely to Europe, where hopefully they won’t be forgotten or ignored. The captain (who died prior to the film’s release), often waxes philosophic about the plight of these people, and how karma might turn the tables on us if we ignore the problem for much longer. I simply enjoyed the fact that we basically stayed at sea the entire time, so we could focus on the rescue, rather than the politics.

A Night at the Garden – Marshall Curry
In February of 1939, a rally was held for American Nazis at Madison Square Garden. This film, which is a scant seven minutes long (seriously, my girlfriend went to the bathroom after the previous film finished and missed the whole thing – I showed it to her on YouTube later), is nothing more than archival footage of the event. Police line up outside the venue to block protesters, because Nazis still have First Amendment rights in this country. Inside, the floor is packed with people (about 20,000). The then-current version of the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. On the dais is a Hitler Youth-style boys choir. Behind them is a portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas and American Flags. Fritz Kuhn, head of the German American Bund, speaks about their demands for a white, Gentile American government. A protester (apparently a Jewish plumber) rushes Kuhn on the stage, but he’s held back and beaten by police and Nazi security before being thrown out. A woman sings the end of the Star Spangled Banner. The picture fades out and a slate gets thrown up noting the date of the event, that at the same time Hitler was building concentration camps in Europe, and that in seven months’ time he would invade Poland, launching the second World War.

That’s it. That’s the entire movie. I call shenanigans! This is not a documentary! It’s just archive footage edited down. You can watch basically the entire rally on YouTube right now. This is just a highlight reel. There’s no narrative, no context, no commentary, just clips and a slate! This should not even be eligible! We’re left to our own devices to infer a subtext – most likely about how quickly fascism can rise when Americans endorse it – but that’s at best a correlation, not a causation. More importantly, it’s lazy. And if the Academy was trying to make people aware of biases and stereotypes, they actually kind of shot themselves in the foot. The Academy gets criticized all the time for defaulting to Holocaust-related stories, the very critique that, when taken to its extreme, turns into paranoia about Jewish-controlled media and Hollywood. Well what better way to prove them right than to give an Oscar nomination to a seven-minute truncation of archival footage that doesn’t even count as a documentary? Way to think it through, idiots! Again I say, SHENANIGANS!

Period. End of Sentence. – Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton
Also available on Netflix, this is the one outlier of the set, in that it’s positive, heartfelt, and funny. In a small village outside of New Delhi, India, local women still deal with a taboo related to their own menses. It’s almost completely unspoken, to the point that even the local teenage boys don’t even know what a woman’s period is. For the women, there’s a double shame, because most have to wear a reusable cloth during that time of the month which they have to wash, and once they begin having regular periods, their public life is basically over, as many leave school due to the embarrassment of having their menstruation revealed to others. They can’t even afford basic hygiene products that are readily available in the West, like tampons and maxi pads.

However, a local businessman has invented a machine to mass-produce biodegradable pads efficiently and inexpensively. He trains the women how to use the machine, and puts them to work making and selling the pads to each other. Not only does the work empower the women (one is overjoyed that she actually earns more than her husband and can buy him gifts for once), but it helps them to shed the social stigma by teaching others, including the men in the community, about this natural part of their lives, making them just a bit more understanding in the process. This isn’t a perfect story, but it’s sweet, and good-humored, and that’s missing from a lot of documentaries lately.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) Period. End of Sentence.
2) Lifeboat
3) End Game
4) Black Sheep
DNQ) A Night at the Garden

I’m so pissed about that last one that I’ll provide a little bonus treat. One of the shortlisted docs that didn’t make the field was a New York Times editorial piece called My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes. Now, on title alone, this film should have been nominated. No matter what it’s about, a title like that grabs you and makes you wonder what this could possibly be about. Watch this, then watch A Night at the Garden (both are available on YouTube), and tell me how this didn’t deserve to get in but a seven-minute Nazi highlight reel did. Had this been nominated, it would have been my #2 choice.

Next up: Cut, print, wrap! It’s Best Director!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which doc should win? Should the “Tapes” have gotten in? Is there any logical reason for the Nazi movie whatsoever? Let me know!

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