Back Row Thoughts: Doc’s Orders – Part 4

Well folks, we made it. After nearly two months of searching, planning, and running all over creation, we’ve once again reached the end of the Documentary Feature shortlist. This year was harder than most, as a lot of non-fiction films flew completely under the radar. Only a few got full-on theatrical releases, while the vast majority were dumped onto streamers, only to surface once the Documentary Branch of the Academy – consistently the most mercurial department of the entire organization – made their decisions. And to make matters worse, not only was there an entry among the final 15 that wasn’t available for general audiences to see in any form, it ended up as one of the final nominees, creating a scenario where a possible winner will be completely inaccessible to the average viewer, which flies directly in the face of what the Academy is supposed to stand for.

Still, through perseverance and sheer dumb luck, I was able to find it, see it, and clear the list once more. This marks four straight years where I’ve accomplished the goal. The last time I came up short was with the 2018 field, where Ex Libris: The New York Public Library didn’t become available on home video until after the Oscars, and I missed its one-week theatre run the previous September.

It’s always intriguing to explore this program and share my thoughts with you all, even when it feels almost impossible. It’s a huge part of why I keep this blog going, and I hope this at least somewhat as fun for you all as it is for me. We’ve got four more movies to examine, so let’s get to it. If you want to catch up on the entire field, here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this year’s mini-series, as well as separate reviews for Fire of Love and Moonage Daydream.


Matthew Heineman has quickly become one of the biggest names in documentary filmmaking in recent years, as this is his fifth time making the first cut in this category, even though he’s only been putting out movies since 2009. He even has a nomination under his belt for the shocking and visceral Cartel Land.

His latest film, Retrograde, is certainly the most timely of this year’s crop, as it deals with the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent overrunning of the nation’s military by Taliban forces, effectively undoing a 20-year war and occupation in the span of a few weeks. The title itself refers to the procedures by which our servicemen drew down, transferred authority at outposts, and destroyed sensitive materials and weapons to prevent them falling into enemy hands once we left.

At the center of the film is a young Afghani general named Sami Sadat, who has quickly risen through the ranks due to his charisma and commitment to a free and democratic country. He’s a passionate leader who has the backing of his troops, but unfortunately, either by circumstance, poor strategy, or lack of experience, he is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the Taliban onslaught, as the repressive former ruling party spent their two decades in exile simply biding their time and building their numbers, waiting for the opportunity to seize power once more.

I did enjoy the sense of camaraderie among both the American and Afghani troops, and Sadat is certainly an intriguing person, but on the whole, this film didn’t do all that much for me. It’s competently made, as Heineman would have to actually try to make a bad movie – but the story feels very slight considering the weight of the consequences. There’s no real depth into the hows and whys of the situation, only a semi-detached view of the tragedy as it unfolds. That by itself would be compelling, if there was a focus on the human element at play, particularly the civilians who had to flee for their lives (many not making it) once the Taliban swept back in. But given their training, the military members who make up the majority of the active players in this movie are incredibly dispassionate and blunt about things. Even the most devastating news is presented matter-of-factly as orders that came down which they must obey. There’s the briefest of apologies from one set of officers and soldiers to the other, as they know what the end of the mission really means, but there’s no emotion behind it by design, so it’s hard for me as a viewer (and I’m guessing audiences writ large) to engage with it.

Similarly, it doesn’t help that there’s no real exploration about the war itself, what the victories and defeats were along the way, or perhaps most damning of all, what motivations led a lot of the Afghanistan forces to basically surrender at the first sign of adversity. Were they unprepared? Did they miscalculate? Were any of them that opposed to the Taliban to lay down their lives? These are legitimate questions that the film leaves not only unanswered, but unasked. Given the media coverage of the event stateside, where pundits on both sides of the aisle were quick to pontificate and place blame without ever setting foot on the ground during America’s Longest War, a first-person perspective of the true human toll would have been greatly appreciated. Again, it’s not a bad film by any means, but it just feels incomplete, like there were a ton of directions it could have gone, but decided on the most anodyne and antiseptic.

Grade: B-

Last Flight Home

On second thought, maybe a little bit of emotionless detachment is okay, because from here on out, everything will be gleefully ripping your heart out of your chest and curb-stomping it. Written and directed by Ondi Timoner, Last Flight Home is a film that will just destroy you, and yet you’ll be thankful for it. Dealing with one of the saddest topics imaginable, the movie’s triumph is in how life-affirming it is in the face of death, and serves as a welcome example of bravery and common sense for those who want true insight into a controversial issue.

Eli Timoner was a successful businessman throughout the 1960s and 70s, with his crowning achievement being the founding of Air Florida. One of the pioneers of discount travel, the airline proved to be a model for the likes of Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, and Spirit, for better or worse. He took the basic idea of wanting fast travel between hotspot destinations in Florida and expanded it into one of the most profitable commercial airlines in the country for its time.

However, in 1982, he suffered a stroke, permanently limiting his mobility and ending his career. Nearly 40 years later, as his health has continued to decline, Timoner made the decision to end his life. Being a resident of California, which had recently enacted the “End of Life Option Act,” he was legally allowed to die with dignity with the assistance of willing doctors. His daughter Andrea (nicknamed Ondi), took it upon herself to document his final days. What follows is an absolutely heartbreaking two week process that Eli must undergo in order to carry out his final request. This gives him time to fully consider his options, get second opinions about whether he can truly have quality of life, and most importantly, say goodbye to his loved ones.

That’s where the meat of the film lies. In a series of Zoom calls with friends and distant relations, a great number of people who were affected by Eli’s life get to send him off. He can barely talk, and he’s confined to a hospital bed propped up in his living room, but there’s a genuine grace, charm, and sense of humor to the man even in his state. It will choke you up every time, but there is something oddly wonderful about the whole thing. It’s the old hypothetical of wondering what it would be like to attend your own funeral and hear what people have to say about you. Imagine a continuation of It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey is on his death bed and gets one more pleasant tribute from the people of Bedford Falls, all knowing that their lives would be irreparably different (and likely worse) without him.

And Ondi makes sure to keep the idea of lives touching other lives front and center in this piece. There are those who don’t necessarily agree with what Eli is doing, at least from an emotional standpoint. There are relations, particularly one of his granddaughters and his other daughter Rachel (a prominent rabbi in Brooklyn), who simply don’t want to lose this important person, and find it hard to face the reality of what’s happening. Eli’s wife Lisa is particularly shaken at times, as she’s got a fortnight to prepare for a lifetime without her love. It’s enough to make you bawl your eyes out, but the fundamental respect that everyone has for his decision and his right to check out on his own terms pervades everything, whether it’s a tearful violin demonstration or a humbling video message from Rachel Maddow (Eli was a longtime fan of her show).

Don’t go into this unprepared. You will watch a real person die in this movie. You will see Eli Timoner’s final moments play out, and there will be times when it will be hard to watch. But the love that the entire family shares for one another is paramount in this story, as well as the peace that Eli achieves in his final moments, still trying to make some good come out of his situation and atone for mistakes he made in his past until the very end. Honestly, as much as I needed to wipe my eyes throughout, I couldn’t help but be happy, and a little bit envious. I truly wish that when it’s my time to go, I’m able to do so surrounded by such love, and leave this world knowing that those I care about will be able to carry on.

Grade: A-

Children of the Mist

Very rarely will I use the term “traumatizing” to describe a film, but I think it’s warranted here. This is a story that cut me right to the quick, leaving me angry, terrified, and sad about the state of the world. It’s an important movie, one that needs to be seen, but that knowledge doesn’t come close to helping you steel yourself for what’s to come.

Directed by Ha Le Diem, Children of the Mist takes place in the hilly regions of northern Vietnam, home to a small village of Hmong people. I admit that my knowledge of their culture is woefully lacking, my only exposure to it being in the form of the supporting cast of Gran Torino, and even that was 15 years ago. Instantly you can see the literal meaning of the film, as a group of young girls plays along the hillside rice paddies, a thick fog descending around their environment.

Obviously, however, it’s the figurative meaning that matters here, as this is a story about how children disappear. The film centers on Di, a 12-year-old girl in the village when the film begins (Ha was embedded with Di and her family for three years making this movie). She’s pretty much your typical teenager. She goes to school, plays with her friends, argues with her parents (I’ll get to those pieces of work in a moment), and spends too much time on social media. She’s also beginning to experience puberty and develop feelings for boys, becoming something of a flirt, which her mother Kay discourages.

This is because there is a local custom where women marry very young. Di is among the first group of girls in her community to get a formal education, because up until her generation, it was commonplace for girls her age to already be wives and/or mothers. The manner in which they marry is nothing short of barbaric, as on the Lunar New Year holiday, it is considered a normal practice to have a “bridal kidnapping.” If a man is interested in taking a wife, he literally takes her, abducting her to his family home, where she is essentially imprisoned until she and/or her family agrees to the union.

How common is this? Disgustingly so. That opening scene of girls playing I described earlier? That’s Di and her friends (some as young as eight years old) playacting this very scenario. Di’s older sister La has already been forced into marriage, and Kay was as well. I’m not one to disparage other cultures, but I’m sorry, that’s just fucked up. When a literal human rights violation is so ingrained in a society that children treat it like a game of “Tag,” that is beyond redemption.

A good chunk of the film is spent on Di’s fluctuating levels of maturity about the subject. Over the course of the three years that Ha spends documenting her, she can be seen mocking the practice, fantasizing about how she’d escape an attempt, and casually dismissing it in favor of whatever flirting and teasing she finds amusing in the moment. Translation, she’s being a teenage girl. She’s chastised for her attitude, but it’s entirely normal, and certainly not deserving of a lifetime of domestic servitude.

Unfortunately, as we all know it must be, the issue is forced when a young man named Vang asks her out on the holiday, promising that he’d never try to kidnap her. Every moment from here on out is awash in human cruelty. You even pity Vang a little bit, because he’s only doing what he’s been raised to believe is acceptable, and he truly doesn’t understand why this girl he likes somehow doesn’t want to marry him, instead insisting that they drink a “break up wine” to annul the arrangement.

This is where Di’s parents show their true colors as terrible human beings. Constantly drunk and bickering, Kay and Pho have an awful, borderline abusive relationship, a textbook example of why this practice should be outlawed worldwide. And yet, when the moment comes, the two finally present a united front… in trying to swindle the biggest dowry out of Vang’s family that they can. One moment Kay is overcome with anguish when Di doesn’t arrive home after curfew, and the next she’s completely turned around on the idea, paying lip service to the thought of her daughter having a choice in the matter or even personal agency as a human being while negotiating with strangers for pork and booze in exchange for Di’s life. Even when Di’s schoolteachers, representatives of Vietnam’s government, try to intervene and inform them that both Di and Vang are underage, and therefore their marriage would not be legally sanctioned, Kay’s concern is 100% on how she can personally profit from human trafficking and sexual slavery. And this is coming from someone who spends the entire first half of the film talking about her own regret as a kidnapped bride. As Di is literally dragged from her home kicking and screaming, all you can do is pray for sanity to prevail, or for the director to abandon any pretense of non-judgmental objectivity and physically put an end to this through any means necessary. Fuck the Observer Effect. This is wrong! It must be stopped!

Like the other traumatizing films I’ve seen in my life, I recognize just how important this is, and why stories like this need to be told. But I’d be lying if I said I ever wanted to watch it again. I felt sick as I left the theatre. That’s how visceral this was. Kudos for a terrifically-made film, but sometimes a call to action isn’t enough. At some point, you just have to put the camera down and do what needs to be done.

Grade: A-

A House Made of Splinters

And now we come to the ever-elusive nominee. I finally got to see this over the weekend, and it was an ordeal. Despite director Simon Lereng Wilmont’s accomplished career, including the previously shortlisted The Distant Barking of Dogs, his latest feature, A House Made of Splinters (which won the directing award for the World Documentary competition at last year’s Sundance Festival) has no distributor in North America. I have been trying to track this film down since it was nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards, but for the longest time there was just no luck. I figured that once it was shortlisted and eventually nominated for the Oscar that it would get fast-tracked to the theatres and secure distribution quickly, but still there is nothing as of this posting. There was a screening for Academy voters last week that was not open to the general public (though a friend of mine got to go as a guest), but no official word on any other avenues for viewing. I honestly thought my streak of completing this shortlist, this category, and the entire Oscars field was going to by broken because of the powers that be not making it available.

I was about a day away from following the advice of the internet and going through some questionably ethical means to see it. If you’re not aware, the film is available for free through the BBC’s iPlayer app. In order to watch it, you’d have to download a VPN to your device, link to a UK server, download and install the iPlayer, enter a UK postal code, and say “yes” if and when it asks you if you have a BBC license. Go through all those steps, and the movie is there for free. Otherwise, you might be completely shit out of luck until it debuts on POV on PBS this summer. That’s the best we’ve got four weeks away from Oscar night. Why there can’t be a simple agreement that the Academy itself can make nominated films available is beyond me.

So how did I get to see it? Well, after months of sleuthing, the solution presented itself to me on Tuesday. There was to be a special screening, complete with a live Q&A session with Wilmont and his producer Monica Hellström (who also co-produced Flee), at the University of Southern California on Saturday. Googling literally every single day since the nominations yielded this result. It was free and open to the public, but I still had to reserve a seat and, you know, show up. I had never been to the USC campus before, and it is fucking HUGE! I thought my alma mater of Syracuse was big. It’s a children’s playground by comparison. As I boarded the Metro train to head to one of the school’s two stops, I got an email alert that the venue had been changed (we’re less than two hours from showtime), so I had to improvise and meander through the buildings once I got there to find the correct address. Once inside, I had to dodge crowds in attendance for screenings of different films for an Asian-American festival featuring works by professionals and students. Some prankster even pulled the fire alarm right as the doors were set to open.

But finally, FINALLY, I got inside, took my seat, and the film started playing. It was quickly stopped because the sound didn’t start, but the issue was quickly resolved. Apparently it was one of many tech problems the school had in putting on the show, as the original venue was an IMAX theatre (yes, you read that right, USC has an IMAX auditorium on its campus; $62k a year in tuition per student can buy a lot), but the coordinators couldn’t ingest the files properly to run at an IMAX frame rate, necessitating the last-minute change. Even after the film started playing properly, there were several moments where subtitles didn’t render the right way, superimposing on themselves to the point of illegibility quite a few times.

But still, the odyssey concluded happily, and I saw the film at long last. And after all that, I have to say that the voters got this one right, which makes it even more maddening that everyone with the ability to make this movie available to the public has gotten their part in this process so wrong.

In many ways, A House Made of Splinters is a spiritual successor to The Distant Barking of Dogs. In that previous work, Wilmont told the story of two young boys living with their grandmother on the border between Ukraine and Russia as Vladimir Putin was annexing Crimea and encroaching on other territories. Just a few kilometers away from that devastation is a temporary group home for children in crisis. Run chiefly by two social workers – Olga and Aleksandra – the building is a halfway house for kids caught up in the foster system because their parent have severe problems in raising them. In some cases, the parents are out of work (the unemployment rate in that section of Ukraine was alarmingly high in the aftermath of Putin’s first invasion; the film takes place from 2019-2020, 18 months before the current one), have drug or alcohol problems, or have simply given up on being parents. No matter the reasons for their arrival, while the courts adjudicate the individual cases with regard to parental rights, the children spend up to nine months living in this place – all involved are careful NOT to call it an orphanage – doing their best to be normal kids.

The continual gut-punch of a story focuses mainly on three children, each of whom (purely by coincidence as Wilmont noted in the Q&A) represents one of the three ways in which the kids eventually leave the facility. Eva is a bright and excitable young girl with an alcoholic mother. However, she has a very supportive grandmother who hopes to take her in. This is the first potential exit, back into the custody of family. Sasha is silly and playful, and yearns for a close friend, which she finds in another girl named Alina. They represent the possibility of a third party adoption. Then there’s Kolya, the eldest of three siblings (including little brother Zhenya and sister Kristina), who is forced into a sort of “tough guy” role, hanging with older boys who cause trouble. He draws fake tattoos on his arms as a means to hide his own fear and anxiety that he won’t be able to go back home (his mother is also an alcoholic, and it’s implied that his stepfather is abusive) and will instead end up in a state orphanage, doomed to be a statistic.

The innocence and kindness that finds a way through all this trauma and heartbreak is a testament to the strength that these kids don’t even know they possess, and it’s what sustains the audience as they do their best to not break down crying and beg the screen to let them adopt the kiddies into loving homes. You can’t help but wonder if you’d be able to put a smile on your face and act up for the cameras if you were in their shoes. The tenderness and care that Olga and Aleksandra give them, including some occasional bluntness and discipline, is incredible considering the sheer number of kids in the home (I counted more than 30 in one brief shot, and given the size of the building itself, looking like a decent sized apartment complex, I have to imagine there are dozens more) and the cyclical nature of their work.

The brazen evil that is Putin’s invasion would have been enough to get this film nominated from a purely political standpoint, as well as the empathy anyone would reasonably feel to want to know what’s become of the kids in the wake of these war crimes. But honestly, the film would be worthy of a nomination, and maybe even a victory, based purely on its merits in a vacuum. There is a pure humanity in what Wilmont shows us in this film, where the youngest and most vulnerable of people who could so easily be written off instead find ways to thrive in light of their broken home lives. And to his credit, Wilmont hasn’t left this as just a film project, becoming actively involved in making sure that these kids get a chance at a normal life in a stable home, and working with government officials to allocate resources for child psychologists and social workers who can use this type of facility as a model for helping children cope with devastating situations. As the old adage goes, hope is the last thing to die, and it’s places like this group home – and Wilmont’s film by extension – that work hardest to make sure it doesn’t die anytime soon.

Grade: A


Thank you all once again for taking this ride with me. As always, I’ll reveal my rankings for the entire shortlist when I cover the category for the Blitz. That won’t be for a while, though, as I wanted to give myself maximum time to find A House Made of Splinters, so I won’t be getting around to Documentary Feature until March 7th. As always, you can probably piece together my final pecking order based simply on the grades I’ve given all 15 films if you a) don’t have the patience, or b) want to predict how the list will pan out. Either way, this experience continues to be rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what new stories there will be to tell in 2023.

Join the conversation in the comments below! How many films on the shortlist were you able to see? Which were your favorites? What lengths are you willing to go to in order to see a nominated film? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts: Doc’s Orders – Part 4

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