As usual, the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts get the short end of the stick. They’re not screening in all the same theaters nationwide as the animated and live-action nominees. Fortunately, more and more, the docs picked as contenders for the Academy Awards are accessible by other means.
Only one of this year’s Oscar-nominated doc shorts was not already available to stream online the same day as the collection hit theaters via ShortsTV on February 8th. And that one film does begin streaming a few days later, which means all five will be available otherwise when they hit VOD together on February 19th.
The five nominees — Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at the Garden, and Period. End of a Sentence — are all worth watching, whether together or separately. I review and rank them below, and I do have a favorite, but I don’t have much negative to say about any of them. Guessing what will win is tough this year, but I do give it a try.
The only one that could be considered a sequel, sort of, Lifeboat is the second film in Skye Fitzgerald‘s Refugee Trilogy, following the 2015 doc short 50 Feet from Syria. This time, the filmmaker (who in the past was a camera person for fellow nominee Marshall Curry) rides along with Sea-Watch, a German non-profit conducting search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean as they save the lives of hundreds of migrants attempting passage to Europe. Over the course of 34 minutes, we briefly meet some of the heroes, including former Greenpeace captain Jon Castle, and some of the saved.
With issue films like Lifeboat, I would prefer to see some kind of fresh take on the subject matter. The short is very reminiscent of others that have come before it, including 2017 Oscar nominee 4.1 Miles. But should a film like this stand out, or should it simply spotlight and remind us that dangerous overpacked rafts and boats are attempting the journey regularly and many are dying and many are rescued and who knows where they wind up after their fortunate encounter with Sea-Watch? I wish it did more than serve as an advertisement for the organization but it’s also effective enough showcasing the cause.
Could it win the Oscar? This is the easiest to dismiss as a favorite for the Oscar because it’s a familiar subject matter and doesn’t stand out any more than, say, non-winner 4.1 Miles. But more than an honor, it’s of importance just to be nominated in Lifeboat‘s case, as it calls attention to a problem and a good group doing their part to alleviate that problem.
Where to watch it: The New Yorker‘s Screening Room
4. End Game
With the nomination of Lifeboat and End Game, this year’s Oscar contenders start to look like a repeat of 2017. In addition to Lifeboat covering similar terrain as 4.1 Miles, End Game is reminiscent of Extremis, which is also about terminally ill patients and the Bay Area palliative care professionals working with them. Interestingly enough, both End Game and Extremis are distributed by Netflix. They’re also both made by Oscar veterans. End Game is the latest from the team of two-time doc feature winner Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) and Jeffrey Friedman.
As a window into the world of various types of hospice care, the 40-minute End Game is certainly a very watchable and emotionally affecting doc. But as a spotlight on distinctly visionary doctors and methods, I don’t find it so effective. The film doesn’t emphasize enough what is unique about these subjects and characters over, say, those in Extremis. It’s difficult to direct the viewer’s attention away from the patients since we’re drawn to tragedy, at least at first, and maybe we wouldn’t stick with that focus of attention if Epstein and Friedman didn’t also seem to, concluding with all the patient subjects’ deaths. I also think the film isn’t balanced enough in the profiling of each of its three stories.
Could it win the Oscar? Epstein has already won twice (and Friedman was a part of at least one of those honors, if not in award-receiving form), so the voters may not be compelled to recognize him for this. I don’t think it’s their best work, either, and doesn’t have much to make it stand out from its competition here or from past like contenders.
Where to watch it: Netflix
3. A Night at the Garden
Marshall Curry is also no stranger to the Academy Awards, having been previously nominated for his features Street Fight and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, but A Night at the Garden is a very different kind of doc from him. The seven-minute film is quite short, even for a doc short nominee, and consists entirely of archival footage. Similar to other Field of Vision shorts, A Night at the Garden repurposes the material in a poignantly concise manner through editing and minimal title cards. This film does so with footage from an American Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939.
It may seem slight in comparison to the other contenders, but its brief running time is one of the reasons it’s actually a stronger film. It gets its point across so much quicker and is still very memorable. Just as a sampling of moments from Triumph of the Will is enough for a lot of people, at least in getting the gist of the power of that propaganda tool, Curry could have just shared any random excerpt from the 70-year-old footage of the MSG rally, but he’s picked just the right parts and cut them just right for the proper effect. Many other directors would have felt a need to insert certain new footage, but it’s not necessary. We feel and make a comparison on our own, with Curry’s guidance.
Could it win the Oscar? When was the last time an archival doc won this award? And without any interviews? This isn’t the sort that the Academy tends to recognize, but obviously, with its nomination, we’re seeing a change from them. Still, I could see most voters, in fact, thinking A Night at the Garden is a slight and less impactful work.
Where to watch it: Field of Vision
2. Period. End of Sentence
Comparing Period. End of Sentence against A Night at the Garden is difficult. They’re nothing alike and I appreciate them in such different ways. But despite the fact that I often take off points for a doc serving as a commercial for an organization or project, I really like the positivity of this one. Director Rayka Zehtabchi does such a great job of celebrating the women in her film and what they’re doing that it doesn’t seem to be ultimately a showcase of the project. The acknowledgment of the related non-profit The Pad Project, which isn’t even directly featured, comes across as just an additional bit of information. I was pleasantly surprised.
Period. End of Sentence is informative about an issue, setting up the stigma of and ignorance about menstruation in rural India, and enlightening about a project dealing with that issue, following empowered women as they use a sanitary pad manufacturing machine donated to them and establishing a business and brand to sell them in the area. And I love that the doc is such a manageable length that doesn’t come close to the 40-minute Oscar-conscious mark. Zehtabchi offers an efficient story and message and multi-character portrait all in one delightful doc. It’s nice to not be depressed for once while watching the doc short nominees.
Could it win the Oscar? Netflix didn’t win last year with their even better awesome women showcase, Heroin(e), but they might still have a chance with this uplifting doc that was a late pickup for the company.
Where to watch it: Netflix (starting 2/12)
1. Black Sheep
Of all this year’s nominees, Black Sheep is the one I really can’t stop thinking about. Both the story — about a 10-year-old black boy whose family moves from London to a racist housing estate in Essex and the shocking way he adapts to his new surroundings — and the way it’s told. Produced by Jonathan Chinn and two-time Oscar winner in the feature doc category Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man), this short is another of their dramatization-heavy docs. But they and director Ed Perkins (Garnet’s Gold) get the most memorable mileage from their single interview with subject Cornelius Walker, who narrates his shocking tale on screen and in voiceover.
Black Sheep presents a sad circumstance of racism and survival that resonates today, not unlike A Night at the Garden but not so unsurprising as that film’s historical content. I couldn’t believe the turn that Walker’s story takes for the worse, and it’s a difficult development to process. Racism is, unfortunately, one of the biggest issues being tackled by documentaries right now, and it’s all the more heartbreaking to witness such a personal story of someone who isn’t simply a victim of prejudice and violence but who turns that into a desperate level of self-loathing and further hate. Most docs of late remind us that the world is messed up. This one reveals that it’s even more so than we think because there are individual stories that are too complicated to lump in with all else.
Could it win the Oscar? A lot of the doc crowd is still averse to reenactment and dramatization, but as we’ve seen with Simon Chinn’s success at the Oscars in the past, the Academy isn’t totally against it nowadays, if it’s done very well. I think Black Sheep is done well enough to have an affect on enough voters that it will be named as the winner.
Where to watch it: The Guardian