Of the three Short Film categories, the hardest to get through is Documentary Short. This is for two main reasons. One is that the entries are often poignant, insightful, and emotionally devastating in their honesty. In a relatively short span, the filmmakers are able to convey the breadth of the human experience – and sometimes beyond – in ways that are instantly relatable, with images that sear themselves into your mind. When you see a baby pulled from Syrian wreckage, you can’t help but cry. When you hear someone take a look at themselves and evaluate the things they did wrong when they could have done right, you feel inspired and appreciative that you live in a time when people are able to be self-aware. When love is so purely expressed through the simple act of ballroom dancing or the creation of art, you are hopelessly hooked. If you’re not prepared, the experience can leave you in a state.
The second is that in this category, far more often than the other two, the entries push the very edge of that 40-minute time limit, and if there’s no intermission, it can be torture for your bladder. Such has been the case for the past two years. Thankfully last year I had already seen one of the entries before the screenings began, so I knew I could duck out for a couple moments. This time around, thanks to the year of practice I had in timing out AMC’s post-trailers promo and the Nicole Kidman ad so I could go to the bathroom and successfully skip both without missing any of the actual movie I paid to see, I was able to properly estimate the length of the credit rolls to give myself just enough time to relieve the situation. Finally that piece of shit commercial serves a purpose.
Anyway, this year’s crop represents some of the best filmmaking styles in non-fiction. There are intimate portraits made with rudimentary equipment standing against visual marvels. There’s a nearly silent entry competing against a woman who was famous for never being afraid to speak out. Archival footage of one major political moment is there to meet the consequences of another. In an odd way, each film informs the next, even though the subject matters are vastly different in some cases. It’s what makes the Shorts program so special, and why it’s my favorite part of the Blitz every single year.
This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are…
The Elephant Whisperers – Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga
There are many films, both fictional and non, that deal with the concept of chosen family. When people come together and realize how much they need and care for one another, it’s a testament to the beauty of the human condition. We are imperfect beings, but we are not defined by our environments, because we can always opt for something different, including how we build lives with others.
The Elephant Whisperers is another such story, but with a somewhat unique twist, in that the chosen family includes pachyderms. Set in a wildlife refuge in southern India, the film focuses on Bomman and Belli, two middle-aged people alone in the world for various reasons (Belli’s a widow, for example), who fall in love not just with each other, but with their shared charge Raghu, a baby elephant who was abandoned by his herd after he got lost. In most cases, an infant elephant without its herd dies, but through their tireless commitment, Bomman and Belli help him to beat the odds and survive, all but adopting him as a surrogate son. The same is true later for Baby Ammu, a second orphan brought to the preserve, who becomes Raghu’s little sister.
The heartwarming nature of the relationship between the humans and the elephants is matched only by the absolutely stunning cinematography. Alternating between extreme closeness and vast landscapes, the camera work creates an excellent sense of scale, showing us that these majestic creatures may be big to us, but we’re all tiny and insignificant in the grand scope of the world. Because of that, the need for love, trust, and companionship is even more crucial, a sentiment that the film gets across perfectly.
Haulout – Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev
After decades of denialism and inaction, the consequences of climate change are finally starting to manifest themselves in tangible form. This sibling filmmaking team gives us a prime example in Haulout, a visceral visual representation of just how much we’re willing to ignore a problem until it’s literally at our doorstep.
Over the course of three months in 2020, the pair filmed marine biologist Maxim Chakliev, who documents the migration of walruses in Russia. For the past several years, as temperatures have risen, more and more animals have traversed the beach where Chakliev sets himself up in a small wooden shack, due to the lack of coastal ice for the walruses to slide across. On this particular occasion, the problem comes to a head in shocking fashion, as one day he opens the door to find tens of thousands of walruses packed so tightly on the land and surrounding the hut that he can’t move or even step outside.
There’s almost no dialogue in the film apart from the odd report Chakliev gives to his tape recorder. Instead, the image is meant to tell the whole story, and it is hauntingly successful. Even on the rare moments when the filmmakers can get outside to take an overhead drone shot, the sheer mass of the walrus haulout (hence the title) is unbelievable. It’s also, sadly, quite predictably tragic, as Chakliev notes a record number of deaths due to exhaustion, as the walruses expend so much more energy swimming and moving on land than they do on ice.
As far as the actual presentation goes, the film lives and dies by that surprise reveal, and it is powerful. Even by talking about it here, potentially spoiling it, the impact can’t be dulled. Unfortunately, while everything that happens before and after is important, it doesn’t live up to that climax, and thus can feel underwhelming by comparison. It’s still worth your time, because we need more literal in-your-face demonstrations of the practical effects of global warming, but one shocking moment isn’t enough to compete with the rest of the field.
How Do You Measure a Year? – Jay Rosenblatt
When the shortlists were announced, my immediate thought/hope was that this film would have something to do with Rent, considering the title is a line from “Seasons of Love.” Well, I wasn’t too far off, as the song is referenced – and briefly sung – in this project. But what the story is really about was something I never would have anticipated, even though I’ve fantasized about it for years, as I’m sure many others have.
If Jay Rosenblatt’s name seems familiar to you, it’s because this is the second year in a row he’s been nominated in this category, after the transcendent When We Were Bullies. In a weird sense, this film sort of acts as a spiritual successor, even though I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, for reasons that will be clear momentarily. Both documentaries deal with the fragility of childhood, and the importance of empathy and love. The major difference is that last year’s entry was introspective, while this one plays out in brief spaces of real time.
Like a non-fiction version of Boyhood, Rosenblatt’s film is nothing more than a series of home movies, interviews he conducted with his daughter Ella, on her birthday every year from age two to eighteen. Each time he asks her the same questions: What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you think power is? What do you dream about? What are you afraid of? They’re all very simple questions that open the door for an endless array of imaginative answers. In particular, Ella’s response when still a toddler, mistaking the word “power” for “powder,” is one of the biggest and most unexpected laughs I’ve had in years.
The evolution playing out in a matter of minutes as we watch this child grow up is palpable. You see awkwardness, insecurity, joy, sadness, and you even wonder when the Rosenblatts will replace their ugly old couch. You see Ella learn to sing, getting better each year. You feel her self-doubt when she reaches adolescence and wonders if they should even be doing this exercise anymore. But through it all, the one thing that shines brightest of all is the love between a father and daughter, and it will leave you breathless and reaching for tissues.
Loads of parents make home videos of their kids, and many more create messages and keepsakes that their offspring can read and appreciate when they get older. The whole idea is to leave a time capsule of the people these parents are as they learn to be responsible for another life. But rarely has that time capsule been taken from the child’s perspective, and even rarer is when it’s shared with the world. This is a work of pure beauty, and the fact that we as an audience can be let in to get the redux version of every bit of Rosenblatt’s happiness is an absolute marvel, one that I’m grateful I got to experience in case I never have children of my own.
The Martha Mitchell Effect – Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison
While the source is a matter of debate and dispute, one of the most famous quotes of modern American society is, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That enduring quip is basically the thesis statement for The Martha Mitchell Effect, (named for its own footnote in our cultural lexicon), an exploration of one of the seminal moments of American history, but one not often given its due.
Told through archival footage, the story of Martha Mitchell is intriguing and tragic. The wife of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, Martha was noted for her gift of gab, often commanding the spotlight and the attention of the press during the President’s first term. A sort of Jackie Kennedy for Republicans, Martha hosted parties, cracked good-natured jokes, and was generally well-liked even by the stodgiest politicians, journalists, and wonks.
When her husband, who resigned his cabinet position to run CREEP (the oh so prescient acronym for Nixon’s re-election committee), became involved in the Watergate break-in, her story took a very dark turn. Initially a vocal defender of John, it became apparent that she had information – confirmed by Nixon’s infamous “White House Tapes” – that could cause trouble for the administration, and a plan was hatched to silence her. She was essentially held hostage and assaulted by Nixon’s goons, and when she went public, a smear campaign was launched to discredit her by claiming she was mentally ill and an alcoholic, leading to her friends and family abandoning her, and John divorcing and disavowing her. This is essentially the textbook definition of “gaslighting,” and an all too poignant reminder of just how easily history repeats itself.
From a presentation standpoint, the assembly of the footage is quite strong. I was especially impressed with the contextual use of the White House Tapes as well as candid interviews with legendary reporter Helen Thomas. It’s been almost 50 years since Watergate brought Nixon down, and we’re currently living through a different game-changing criminal scandal that could alter the course of history and politics depending on how it plays out. Last time, a leader resigned, a few “fall guys” served minimal prison time, and a truth-teller was destroyed. While there are better entries in this year’s field, it’s crucial to have films like this, to remind us that we can’t let it happen again.
Stranger at the Gate – Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones
We’re told throughout our lives that a simple act of kindness can change the world. Stranger at the Gate illustrates exactly how. In the wake of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment spread throughout the U.S. (and the world) like wildfire. Hate crimes rose exponentially, wars were fought using the threat of terrorism as a scare tactic, and otherwise reasonable people fell victim to prejudices they didn’t even know they had. You wouldn’t believe how many people I encountered at school, work, and my hometown who legitimately thought that every Muslim person had at least a second-degree connection to an extremist.
That fear, combined with ingrained bias from his military career, helped to radicalize Richard “Mac” McKinney, to the point that he secured explosives and went to the Islamic Center in Muncie, Indiana, intending to blow it up and help “save” America. However, at the moment of truth, something unexpected happened, and it changed the lives of everyone involved forever.
The interviews conducted with McKinney, his family (ex-wife and adopted step-daughter), a refugee family who fled Afghanistan, and one of the leaders of the center, are amazingly even-handed, brutally honest, and extremely powerful. Hearing each of them speak openly and frankly about their lives, their judgments, and their own preconceived notions that led to this inflection point is something almost otherworldly. This isn’t just some story about a thing that happened because some redneck hayseed took Fox News too seriously. This is a tale about the darkest side of humanity, and the courage it takes to find the light.
We hear far too often about situations like this that go horribly, horribly wrong, resulting in destruction, devastation, and the unfathomable loss of life. For once, just for once, we have a film that acknowledges how bad things can get, but finds a way to make it uplifting and life-affirming because there’s always a chance to avert disaster. It’s a much-needed reckoning of our national discourse without indicting any one entity for the state of affairs. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter what convinces someone that murder is the only recourse. What matters is that, when confronted with the worst of circumstances, how do we respond, and how do we get people back to that basic goodness that prevents these tragedies in the first place?
1) How Do You Measure a Year?
2) The Elephant Whisperers
3) Stranger at the Gate
4) The Martha Mitchell Effect
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, what was once considered a lock has suddenly become an open contest, and it’s for one of the most prestigious awards of the entire ceremony. It’s Best Actress!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What are your favorite kinds of documentary? Which of these nominees affected you the most? Am I the only one who thinks Rachel Dratch would be perfect for a Martha Mitchell biopic? Let me know!
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