Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary

For the first time in my life, I'm determined to see every single Oscar-nominated Short Film before the big day on February 28th. This past weekend, at the opening weekend of Santa Monica's newest theater, the Laemmle Monica Film Center (check it out if you're in the area), all five Documentary Short nominees were screening back-to-back(-to-back), totaling 160+ minutes of viewing time. I couldn't resist the chance to see these in the theater, so I rushed there first thing Saturday morning. (Note: the Documentary Shorts will be playing there through Feb. 11th)

I knew nothing about these films going in, other than that they were from all over the world. Voted on by special committee within the Academy, these five were honored with nominations, picked from a "shortlist" of ten. Short films tend to be a category of this medium most people overlook (myself included), but once presented with this series, I certainly walked away with my favorites.

Ranked from best (1) to least best (5)—I mean, c'mon, they're all spectacular—here are my thoughts on the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary:


Directed By: Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman
Country: United States
Run Time: 31-min
View the Trailer

This fully animated documentary is a true crime account that expertly builds a dynamic, powerful film around one man's interview. My personal favorite of this year's documentary short nominees by just a hair (see: my #2 pick), we're introduced to Bill Babbitt, our storyteller, who describes his childhood growing up with big brother, Manny, before Manny's deployment and subsequent two tours of duty in Vietnam. Through Bill's emotional narration, the film explores the damaging impact of post-traumatic stress on veterans as Babbitt recounts Manny's emotional struggles upon returning home, which led to homelessness and diagnosed schizophrenia. The climax of the film comes as Bill tells of the events in 1980, when Manny was sentenced to death for murder in a legal case that highlights the racial and social injustices granted to men who served in uniform—and those who were denied the mental help they needed.

The first thing you notice about the film is the animation. Drawn frame by frame over what looks like live filmed footage, we're saved from enduring a bevy of physical reenactments, and instead, experience an ever-moving, almost intangible story through a most sympathetic narrator. Bill Babbitt's voice resonates deeply with the audience as he rubs his eyes and chokes back tears, almost pleading with us to understand and accept the Manny that he knew. This isn't a political issue for him—it's entirely personal, but it's that connection he has to Manny that gives credence to the political subtext, the hotly debated use of the death penalty. I was emotionally struck by this film, and its true crime elements are tension-filled and developed within the story perfectly. I can't recommend this one enough, and I hope to see it go on to win the Academy Award. [Watch on Netflix]


Directed By: Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy
Country: Pakistan
Run Time: 40-min
View the Trailer

Between this and Last Day of Freedom... it's a toss-up for which one came out on top. Both are tension-filled recounts of personal tragedy, dripping with political injustice, and for that, I was equally captivated. While Girl in the River may have come in second for me personally, there is no denying that it is the most fully-realized and well-rounded film of the bunch.

Set in modern-day Pakistan, the horrific tradition of "honor killings" claims the lives of over a thousand girls and women every year. This film tells the story of 18-year-old, Saba Maqsood, who survived a horrific murder attempt by her father and uncle. Shot in the face and hand, then left for dead in a river bank for marrying without her family's content, young Saba's survival continues the debate raging about the religious and legal justifications of murdering in the name of family honor. While this exploration could have been enough for any film of this length, director Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy (previous 2012 documentary short Oscar winner) takes it a terrifying step further and delves into the trial that follows... and the pressure placed on the victim to "forgive" her attackers, thereby acquitting them in the eyes of the law. The rarity of survivors being able to face their attackers isn't lost on us, or Obaid-Chinoy.

The interviews that Obaid-Chinoy obtained are spectacular, speaking with Saba's father and uncle directly, who show no remorse for their actions, but rather, beam with pride. The struggle of the legal and police systems to fight against such an ingrained and warped tradition stands out, which takes this beyond a story of personal strength. Traumatic and unnerving, this is certainly a contender for best of the year.


Directed By: David Darg
Country: Liberia
Run Time: 13-min
View the Trailer

Of all the films, this one had the most potential for greatness. Telling the story of Body Team 12, a crew of nurses and workers in Monrovia, Liberia who are tasked with collecting and disposing of bodies of men, women, and children killed by Ebola. Struggling to contain the spread of the disease, as well as convincing family members to let the body go, the team's story is told through the eyes of their only female crew member.

The shortest of the nominated films, it's also the one with the most compelling subject matter. Of all the stories, Body Team 12 could easily have been a full-length film. In many ways, it was my favorite. The problems, however, lie in its brevity. Shot beautifully, the film consists of on-the-job footage (images that are enough to make your stomach turn) and powerful interviews, primarily with our female subject. I wanted more, and the film couldn't—or wouldn't—deliver. One can hope that a feature version is in the works.


Directed By: Adam Benzine
Country: United States
Run Time: 40-min
View the Trailer

A behind-the-scenes account of one of the most important Holocaust documentaries ever made, recounted by French director, Claude Lanzmann, himself. Shoah was a 10-hour documentary released in 1985 that investigated the happenings of the Holocaust through the eyes of those who witnessed it—survivors and perpetrators alike. But this isn't a documentary about the documentary; it's about the toll that filming Shoah took on Lanzmann, emotionally and mentally, over the course of its decades-long production. Exhaustive in its investigative nature, Shoah was an achievement that Lanzmann reveals he almost didn't finish. This short is a powerful look at the making of ground-breaking cinema.

To me, this reeks of Oscar-bait. For film lovers, this is the kind of rare look into the filmmaking process that we live for; it's also what makes it feel like a Shoah Blu-Ray special feature rather than a short film. The original documentary is where the uniqueness lies, not necessarily in the Spectres of the Shoah production. The subject matter doesn't feel new, though its impact never lessens, no matter how many documentaries or archive footage of the camps you see. Yet the element of tension and "newness" is missing from this film—the other nominees managed to incorporate personal stories far more grounded and relatable.


Directed By: Courtney Marsh
Country: United States/Vietnam
Run Time: 34-min
View the Trailer

A uncompromising film that follows the life and dreams of Chau, a victim from birth of the chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam, who dreams of one day becoming a renowned artist. Taking us from his communal life away from his birth family, living at a care center, or 'camp,' with other Agent Orange victims of various ages who suffer from equally debilitating physical deformities. Despite his challenges, Chau is a positive, hopeful young man whom we see eventually set out on his own in an attempt to achieve his dreams.

Structurally, this film has an issue establishing the passage of time. As we learn of Chau's story, we see his life at the 'camp' where he was raised, but as he describes his transition back home and then eventually out into the real world, we lose sight of how much time is passing and just how difficult those transitions were. Director Courtney Marsh's footage is a bit all over the place, albeit fascinating to watch. Chau is, by himself, a compelling subject, but Vietnam's reaction to the disabled, child victims of Agent Orange is the foundation on which his story is told. Perhaps were this a longer documentary, there would have been more of an exploration into the effects of AO on the population, how it affects the body and how the government responds to those afflicted. But it isn't really about all that; it's about Chau, and Chau's dreams of becoming an artist. His skills develop and we try to follow along in his journey, but time is limited and we're thrown into the realities of his eventual success well before we're fully invested.

The physical struggles displayed by, not only Chau, but by all the other children at the camp, is very touching. It's not surprising that Marsh chose to spend so much of her time on that part of the story—but the wrap up of the film's titular subject is speedy and unemotional, as a result. Inspiring (and dare I say, happy?) in a way none of the other nominees this year can claim, but it is also, unfortunately, the least impactful.

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