Oscar Gold 2021 – Documentary Short

The first time I watched this category, I made a new friend and I nearly peed mysel. See, the limit for a short subject film is 40 minutes, and occasionally an allowance can be made if the credit roll puts it slightly over that time. When I first saw this category in 2015, basically every entry pushed right against that limit. The shortest of the films clocked in at 28 minutes. As such, the screening reel that ShortsTV distributed to theatres that year actually needed a built-in intermission. If every entry hit the limit, we’d be looking at 200 minutes, or 3 hours, 20 minutes, and we got dangerously close to that ceiling. Thank God for that intermission, because I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into, and had to piss like a racehorse, having ingested an entire large soda over the course of the first three nominees.

I ran to the bathroom so fast that I did not notice that one of my best friends was also in the crowd. She did see me, however, and after the screening tapped me on the shoulder in the hallway, gently teasing me about my bladder-induced sprint. She had another friend with her, and the three of us decided to head to a café where we proceeded to break down the nominees for a further two hours after the fact. I had a few close calls with movies and soda before, but ever since that day, I made it a point to gameplan my viewings for this category to make sure I was completely empty before going in. I will always remember that day, first for the new friendship, and second for the cautionary tale of my literal piss-poor preparation. I’m glad this all happened, because the category has necessitated an intermission at least one more time since then.

Thankfully, that was not the case this year. I just felt like sharing the anecdote for the sake of some humor, because with one exception, this year’s set is pretty depressing. Bill Maher ended his show last week with a joke-filled monologue about how all the Best Picture nominees are downers in one way or another, but the same is true for this category as well. Even the one that is slightly uplifting has its roots in our nation’s troubled past.

Like Animated Short, the pandemic-necessitated expansion of streaming services made this a category that was completable from the shortlist. When they were announced, only one wasn’t readily available, and it ended up getting nominated, so it was on the reel. All the others were available online in one form or another, usually for free. So just like before, I’ll break down the runners-up once we’re done with the nominees. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the Live Action Shorts, so when we tackle that on Monday, I’ll just do the final five. However, this allows me to set a new goal for next year. Let’s see if we can clear all three short film shortlists by nomination day or the appropriate Blitz breakdown day in 2022!

This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are:

Collette – Alice Doyard and Anthony Giaccchino

For better or worse, there is something of a box check in this category, where films dealing with the Holocaust and related subjects are almost always nominated. They rarely win, however, as the wider Academy recognizes that they aren’t always of the highest quality. The last winner on the subject was 2013’s The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, but even then, we can’t be entirely sure that it won on its merits. The woman at the film’s center, who was at the time the oldest living Holocaust survivor, died literally the day before the voting deadline. Anyone who hadn’t cast their ballot at that point almost certainly gave that film the heft needed to secure the victory if it wasn’t already assured. Since then, we’ve seen some really subpar works make this final list on the subject matter alone in the abstract. Two immediately spring to mind. One is A Night at the Garden, which is just 7 minutes of edited footage of a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden from the 1930s. It wasn’t even a real documentary. The footage was public domain, and apart from text slates at the end, there was no commentary or narrative. It shouldn’t have even been eligible. The other was Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, which was essentially a DVD extra-style behind-the-scenes documentary about the film, Shoah. It was interesting, but pointless for the purposes of this category.

This year we have yet another entry, but at least there’s something to it. Collette focuses on a French woman approaching her 90th year. She served in the French Resistance during World War II, along with her mother and brother. Her brother, Jean-Pierre, was captured by the Nazis and taken to a work camp in Germany, where he eventually died two weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied forces. Collette has been invited to tour the facility multiple times, but she has refused. Now, with the assistance of a young historian, she finally agrees to visit the place where her brother met his end.

The film works because of its brutal honesty. For instance, Collette admits that she and her brother were not all that close, and that the reason she hasn’t visited the camp is because of the overall trauma of the Holocaust rather than lingering feelings for him, specifically. When they reach the town, the mayor throws a dinner in her honor and tries to give a welcoming, apologetic speech for her pain and suffering, and she basically is having none of it, eventually yelling at him to stop. Her pain is real, but not overtly dramatic, which makes her more sympathetic. She’s not seeking closure, but the continuation of history, which is a somewhat unique angle.

A Concerto is a Conversation – Kris Bowers and Ken Proudfoot

Kris Bowers is a successful pianist and composer, including some film scoring. Most notably, he wrote the score for Green Book, and this film shows a few seconds of him standing on stage behind Peter Farrelly when it won Best Picture two years ago. For our purposes here, he’s composed a new concerto called “For a Younger Life,” which is based on themes from his youth.

Leading up to the premiere, Bowers decides to do a series of interviews with his grandfather, who moved to Los Angeles from the deep south and made a successful living running dry cleaners. Grandpa has cancer, and likely won’t live too much longer, so Kris wants to spend as much time with him as possible and learn his life story, which turns out to be rather sweet and often funny, given all the hustling and bustling he had to do to establish himself in small business, particularly institutional racism like segregation and the inability to secure loans. The smiles you get on your face is 100% down to his stories about overcoming these obstacles in very clever ways.

It’s the only remotely uplifting story of the bunch, but it loses me in two key places. One is that it’s the cheapest form of Hollywood/Academy self-congratulation. I don’t mind when a movie homages the system and art of filmmaking like Mank and La La Land, but this is the nadir of the craft, as there’s no way this documentary (produced by the New York Times and Ava DuVernay) would have gotten made if Kris were just an everyday composer not working in the film industry. It also lets the Academy pat itself on the back for Green Book‘s controversial win. The momentary obscured shots they use of Bowers in the background is basically saying, “See? A black guy worked on this film other than Mahershala Ali. There’s no way anything racist could have happened? See, he’s right there, barely visible behind Peter Farrelly’s gigantic head. So shut up, Spike Lee!” It just makes me shake my damn head in disappointment.

On the other front, the staging is really awkward. Because of the film’s title, which is figuratively and almost literally true from a musical standpoint (Bowers explains that concertos usually involve a lead musician with a dominant line accompanied by the whole orchestra acting in response), the interviews with Kris and his grandfather are framed as the two of them talking to each other in extreme close-up when in reality they’re speaking directly to the camera. And you can tell as they spin towards one another in alternating shots that there’s no way they’re actually looking at each other. In wide shots they’re having an in-person chat, but in the close-ups they’re just talking to the camera, and it’s clumsy as hell.

Do Not Split – Charlotte Cook and Anders Hammer

In 2019, Hong Kong was on the brink of signing an extradition treaty with mainland China, allowing criminals from the autonomous region (Hong Kong was a British colony from 1899-1999, when official control was returned to China with the understanding that Hong Kong would still have self-rule) to be transported and tried by more a more repressive court system with a 99% conviction rate and much harsher sentences (labor and re-education camps among them). Hong Kong citizens, especially the youth, saw this as a betrayal of their human rights and a violation of the Self-Rule Agreement, so massive protests broke out. In a region of 7 million, nearly one out of every five people took to the streets at one point or another to protest this travesty, leading to a militarization of police and very public acts of violence.

Do Not Split is a first-hand, gonzo look at those protests, up close and personal, with all the masked protesters, most of whom were peaceful and looking for legitimate social and political change, and some who had no qualms about throwing rocks, bottles, and even Molotov Cocktails to firebomb the riot police away from their roadblocks. The film most definitely sides with the protesters, as no police or government officials are interviewed as part of the proceedings (some news clips are used, but that’s it), but they do take a nuanced approach to show the reality of the spectrum of opposition, and the filmmakers are clearly not afraid to put themselves at risk as well, often running to and from the front lines with the crowd and finding themselves in the paths of tear gas and police batons.

More so than any other entry in this field, the film feels like it’s unfolding in real time with resonance to authoritarian tactics on our own soil. Red hat, red flag-waving counter-protesters are brought in to make a big show of support for mainland China, creating their own violence while police only arrest the peaceful, pro-democracy crowd. In an attempt to deter the demonstrations, the local government declares mask-wearing illegal (so surveillance equipment can identify faces), except for the cops of course. When the pandemic hits, everything takes a back seat for the sake of public safety and health at first, but soon enough the people are back out in force, fully-masked, daring authorities to make them get sick for the sake of their freedom.

The struggle is still ongoing, but we’ve seen how powerful China still is in this situation. One of the leaders of the protest movement resigned her position for the sake of her own safety and that of her family. A few members of the crew are listed in the credits as “Anonymous” for their protection. Hell, the inclusion of this film in the category at all has led China to ban the Oscar telecast in the country. That tells you all you need to know about how effective this film is in its messaging.

Hunger Ward – Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Shueuerman

Between this and 76 Days, MTV Films apparently really wants you to experience some trauma through your documentary experience this year. Filmed in Yemen, where anti-Saudi rebels have been carpet bombed for years by their northern neighbors (with weapons provided by the U.S. – Congress passed legislation to stop selling Saudi Arabia weapons but Donald Trump vetoed it), the devastation has created a nightmare for agriculture and infrastructure, to the point that the country is experiencing an historic famine. Hunger Ward focuses on two clinics in Yemen where the extreme hunger has affected small children in stark, graphic ways.

It is a tough watch, especially when they show you the two main young girls who get most of the camera time. One is six years old and only weighs 25 pounds. The other is 10 and only weighs 45. It’s gut-wrenching to see their little distended stomachs and tiny bone arms while the medical staff tries to find a vein for IV. Even worse is the kids who don’t make it. Oh yeah, you get to watch babies die in this movie, so get ready for that, as well as the wholly understandable but no less visceral, soul-shaking screams of their parents when it happens.

I’m all for the detached broadcast of tragedy, but at times this movie feels a little gratuitous, because there’s little more than on-screen text to tie the famine in to the military conflict. There’s a brief account of the first shelling from a man who survived, but that’s it. The rest is just human suffering on top of human suffering, and it’s an onslaught for the entire runtime. I mean, how hard would it have really been to break up the infantile death with a news clip or two showing a food supply getting bombed, or a farm burning? It still gets the point across without making you want to scream, “Please God make it stop!” Hell, MTV’s behind this doc, can we just give these kids some of the bullshit they feed people on The Challenge or something? Jesus.

A Love Song for Latasha – Sophia Nahali Allison and Janice Duncan

In 1991, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl in South Central Los Angeles, was killed by a shopkeeper for allegedly trying to steal a carton of orange juice. She was shot in the back of the head as she left the store after a brief struggle. Her killer was convicted of manslaughter, but the judge overruled the jury on sentencing and gave her probation. A young girl was murdered, and the killer didn’t spend a single day in prison for it. As documented by historians (and by the shortlisted documentary LA ’92) Harlins’ death and the lack of justice, along with the Rodney King verdict, were among the major catalysts of the L.A. Riots.

None of this is new information, obviously, and for the few who don’t know, that info is written on screen before the credit roll. Surveillance footage readily available online even shows the incident where Latasha was killed. What makes A Love Song for Latasha work is that it doesn’t dwell on the moment or the aftermath. It makes a point to not even show the incident. This film is about telling Latasha’s story from the people who knew her best, her closest friend and her cousin. This movie is about letting the world know about the good, brilliant young girl who wanted to be a lawyer to help underserved communities. It’s about how she stood up for other people, how she dedicated herself to her studies, and how her only mistake was thinking that an elderly, racist shopkeeper who often brandished a gun in front of black customers would never actually fire it.

So much was made of how she died and why, and how little value black lives were given 30 years ago, a problem that still persists today. But this movie is much more focused on her life, not her death, because as happens all too often when black lives are destroyed in this country, those who wish to maintain status quo (you know, racists) will try to retroactively convict and condemn the victims for some imagined crime to justify their deaths. This movie, through narration, letters, and even a little bit of animation, is only concerned with doing the opposite, telling the world why she deserved to live. It’s not just about exonerating her from some nonexistent crime. It’s about affirming life and its worth, and the film accomplishes that goal brilliantly and efficiently, as this is the shortest entry in the set, I believe.

***

Now, just as we did with Animated Short, let’s take a look at the other five shortlisted films before we do a full ranking.

Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa

A few years ago, a film with a similar theme won this category, called Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. That film dealt with a specific suicide hotline for American veterans in crisis operating out of Canandaigua, New York, where my sister lives (I’ve literally been inside this VA facility). This film focuses on a call center in Philadelphia, where the workers, all codenamed “Lisa” to protect their identity from overzealous protesters, help women secure funding for abortion procedures.

For more than 20 years, it has been illegal for the U.S. government to provide any federal funding for abortions, even in state-sponsored insurance plans like Medicare and Medicaid. Created by ultra-conservative Congressman Henry Hyde, the now infamous Hyde Amendment makes it exceedingly difficult for poor women to get the care they need and/or want. Proponents framed this regression of women’s rights as a victory for the poor, but in practical terms it’s been a punishment, because wealthier women with strong private insurance or disposable income can afford the procedure, while poorer women are condemned to unwanted motherhood, not to mention a near-guarantee of a life of abject poverty for the child.

The charity featured here takes in donations and rations them out however they can on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis to cover the gap when the women can’t come up with the funds. The procedure costs anywhere from $450 to $3,000 depending on how far into the pregnancy the women are. Those we hear from come from very different walks of life. Some are from abusive households and may not have been impregnated consensually. Some already have kids and can’t afford more. One in particular has an immune system problem where she and the fetus will likely die if the pregnancy goes to term. Another will give birth to a stillborn baby if she’s forced to term.

The Hyde Amendment was always bullshit, and this film gives very real, practical examples of that. These are women who need a medical procedure, they can’t afford it (and of course, as an “elective” procedure, they have to pay in advance rather than being billed), and the government has taken a hateful, illogical stand to prevent that. This film shows the problem in stark and efficient terms, taking only a very brief 13 minutes to demonstrate the issue. Given the Documentary Branch’s previous actions and the acknowledgement from the Academy writ-large, I’m surprised this didn’t get nominated, but I have a theory as to why.

Call Center Blues

The debate around undocumented immigrants, particularly the “DREAMers,” centers on the fact that for a lot of people, the United States is the only home they’ve ever known. As we see in this film, it’s literally a case where someone’s mother was safely in the U.S., went back to Mexico out of fear of deportation to give birth, then came back. As such, that person is a legal Mexican citizen and not an American by like, four hours. And yet this person, like everyone else in the film, who is in every sense an American but the legal one, has been deported to Mexico, a land they do not know. They all work at a corporate call center in Tijuana, so they’re all literally blocks from their home, they can see it, but they don’t get to live there.

There’s a decent variety of these workers, all of whom get a better living than most in their position because English is their native language, and thus don’t have noticeable Mexican accents and can therefore be convincing to the people in the States that they call to solicit sales. There’s a lesbian couple. There’s a U.S. Marine veteran deported and banned from the country he risked his life for. There’s a divorced man who lost his wife when he got in legal trouble, and thus his path to citizenship, though he has found a new love south of the border.

It’s sad and depressing that we can’t just treat people humanely, but at least this film gives a somewhat spin, in that these people can live fulfilling, successful lives by comparison to the poorer parts of Mexico and the Central American war zones that other immigrants get sent back to, even if they’ve never lived there. My guess is that because the call center setting for the film is similar to Abortion Helpline, the two split votes and thus neither made it through, but I’d easily nominate either film over at least one film that did make the final cut.

Hysterical Girl

Also produced by the New York Times, this could have been an intriguing look at how women are presumed crazy rather than believed when it comes to things like sexual harassment, assault, and other traumatic issues. Instead, it’s way too preachy and poorly framed as a fictional production rather than a documentary. And part of this film’s core problems is that by questioning the methodology at all, this film would lump me in with the litany of men who are part of the problem when it comes to women’s issues, so add creating a false catch-22 to the movie’s myriad flaws.

The film begins with a young actress getting her makeup done because this is her first movie role. Now, unless this is a film about the life of an actress and/or a makeup artist, it’s already failed, because you’re telling me this is going to be a performance rather than a documentary. There may be facts involved, but within the first minute, the film undercuts its own quest for credibility.

Things don’t improve when the underlying concept of the film is elucidated to the audience. During his career, Sigmund Freud only did one case study on a woman, who was dubbed “Dora” to protect her identity. Dora was apparently molested and harassed by a male friend of her father’s, but no one believed her story, and she was declared to be suffering from hysteria. If we kept things focused there, this might have worked out. While an important figure in the progress of psychological study, most of Freud’s theories and conclusions have either been massively revised or outright debunked. So a deep study of Dora’s story and the actual facts of the situation might have been interesting.

Instead, the young actress is playing an “updated” Dora, with a script based on Dora’s story and filled with modern language and accusatory indictments of male-dominated society. This is contrasted with Freud’s actual notes and interspersed with clips of infamous examples of men in government not believing a woman’s rape story, from Anita Hill and Joe Biden to Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.

There is a legitimate issue here, but to trace it and assign it to Freud is beyond short-sighted. Based on his notes, he clearly didn’t help, but he didn’t start this problem, nor did he perpetuate it to the point that a century later it’s still a problem. And as respected as he was in his time, the film offers no evidence to suggest that if he somehow had believed Dora’s story that it would have altered the course of history. So while the problem exists, and is a serious one, it’s intellectually dishonest to somehow blame him.

And then, of course, there’s the fictitious nature of the film. It’s one thing to recreate a past event. It’s a whole other thing to manufacture modern dialogue to juxtapose with a 100-year-old essay. By doing this, the film moves from legitimate study to outright fantasy, thus negating itself as a documentary. Honestly, I’m a little offended that this even made the shortlist, because like A Night at the Garden, it’s not a real documentary, albeit for a different reason.

The Speed Cubers

This Netflix documentary is just a lot of fun, the sort of quirky subject matter that we like to see in a short. The film is about the 2019 World Cubing Championships, held in Melbourne, Australia, featuring the best competitors in the world at solving Rubik’s Cubes at breakneck speed. It’s amazing to watch these young people (most age out of the game around their early 20s) do what they do. I’ve never solved a Cube in my life (though to be fair, I haven’t tried that many times), but these kids do it in less than the qualifying time for a professional bull rider. That’s insane. And when the film explains how they’re able to instantly recognize patterns and decipher thousands of possible algorithms to formulate their strategy, it’s mind-boggling in the best way possible.

Within this context, a hefty portion of the film focuses on the two best players in the world, Australian Feliks Zemdegs, who went on a tear in his early teens breaking every world record in existence, and American Max Park, who has since eclipsed Feliks on nearly every discipline. The film contrasts the two lives the boys have led, with Feliks briefly becoming an Aussie celebrity with his parents managing his press appearances, while Max, who was born autistic, had a much more difficult childhood and found cubing as his entry point into emotional and social development. It’s really quite sweet when the film focuses on their friendship and rivalry.

Where the film kind of falls apart is in its overall structure. It kisses the time limit, with the bulk of the narrative focusing on Feliks and Max, but really constructing a hero edit for Max, as he attempts to sweep the World Championships, including the standard 3×3 cube that is truly considered the challenge for speed, as cubers attempt to solve in under six seconds. As such, when we get to the tournament, several other competitors are only briefly highlighted, creating a nightmare if anyone other than Feliks or Max were to win from a production standpoint. The film paints itself into an obvious corner where any result other than what they prepared for would basically torpedo the storyline.

Still, with that Murphy’s Law contingency left hanging, this is definitely the most enjoyable entry of the whole bunch. And as a nerd, I’m always in favor of celebrating nerds whenever we can. Give me a LARP documentary next year. Why not?

What Would Sophia Loren Do?

If we’re judging on title alone, this would be the clear winner, and like My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, I’m surprised that wasn’t enough to at least get nominated. But based on the actual merits of the film, I’m glad it didn’t. This is a somewhat sweet little distraction, though it has the same problem that Claude Lanzmann did. It’s clearly marketing material for another film. Produced by Netflix, the film was made during production of The Life Ahead, which starred Sophia Loren and was directed by her son.

The film isn’t so much about her, though there’s a brief career retrospective, but instead it’s about a woman living here in America, whose parents came to the this country from Naples. And in her family – both growing up and raising her own children – they didn’t go to mainstream cinemas. They instead went to the Italian theatre and watched Sophia’s movies, making this lady into a lifelong fan who frames her life within the context of the films, everything from boisterous independence and assertive attitudes, to carrying oneself when they’re well-endowed up top, to the tragedy of losing a child. This woman is the ultimate Sophia Loren fan, so the film is about both of their life stories, and the eventual meeting of her hero.

All of this is perfectly fine and lovely, but it’s a trifle, and ultimately serves no purpose other than to put the briefest of smiles on your face, a boner in your pants when you watch the clips of Loren in her prime, or to get you to watch something else. I’m cynical about this because again, it’s clearly a tie-in to The Life Ahead, which Netflix marketed heavily for awards consideration, only to get a single nomination for Original Song, which it very well may win. There’s nothing offensive about the subject matter, but the context in which it was made is very off-putting. We’re here for art and education, not corporate synergy.

***

My Rankings:
1) Do Not Split
2) A Love Song for Latasha
3) Collette
4) A Concerto is a Conversation
5) Hunger Ward

Shortlist Rankings:
1) Do Not Split
2) A Love Song for Latasha
3) Collette
4) Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa
5) The Speed Cubers
6) A Concerto is a Conversation
7) Call Center Blues
8) Hunger Ward
9) What Would Sophia Loren Do?
10) Hysterical Girl

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, we have one technical category left, and it’s all about the shiny shinies! It’s Visual Effects!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see these shorts? Which was your favorite? Have you taken to the streets for a protest in recent years? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2021 – Documentary Short

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