The 2016 Oscar-nominated short documentaries are a very international bunch. Out of the five nominees, only one of them is set in the United States, which is actually pretty rare. Otherwise, though, this a pretty typical array for the category. There are stories of struggle both inspiring and devastating, odes to artistic talent and a handful of triumphant human spirits. The quality level is right down the middle, too. This is neither a banner year nor a disappointment, but rather a par the course batch of films that fit right into the Academy mold. One of these years a few really adventurous shorts are going to slip into the mix and there’ll be more crossover between the Academy list and the Cinema Eye Honors list, but this isn’t the year.
That said, some of the work is quite admirable on its own terms. These films are all triumphs of production, if not necessarily cinema. Below are reviews of all five, as well as some thoughts on their shot at Oscar gold.
All of the Oscar nominated short films are now in theaters, presented by Shorts HD. For a full list of cinemas, check out the Shorts HD website.
Body Team 12
The shortest of this year’s nominees, Body Team 12 is a brief but powerful glimpse into the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, specifically Liberia. The title team has the unpleasant job you might infer from their name: to collect the bodies of Ebola victims before they can infect anyone else. It’s both a risky job and a difficult one, given the emotional state of grieving families who want to bury their loved ones.
Director David Darg focuses the film on team leader Garmai Sumo. She’s one of the epidemic’s unsung heroes, committed to saving her country from the ravages of this plague. Yet Body Team 12 is not structured around placing a halo on her head, which is something of a relief. Rather, Sumo is the guide through which the crisis is made real to the audience. She humanizes the science-fiction suits that the body team wears on the job, and her deep empathy for the families of the victims turns tense, potentially sensational moments into a more complex tragedy.
Can it win? Over the past decade, this category has been won a few times by films focused on international public health issues. The Blood of the Yingzhou District is probably the closest analogue, but Smile Pinki and Saving Face have a similar profile. Yet the biggest obstacle for Body Team 12 is its length. No film under 20 minutes has won Best Documentary Short since 1974. In recent years the trend has been toward films that push the 40-minute maximum.
In addition to the current theatrical release, Body Team 12 will debut on HBO in February.
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Chau, Beyond the Lines is a film about struggle. Chau is a Vietnamese teenager who was born with a physical disability, the result of his mother’s exposure to Agent Orange. He lives in a home for similarly disadvantaged kids. He dreams of becoming an artist and designer, in spite of all the discouragement he gets from his nurses. Yet he pushes on, working toward a children’s drawing competition held annually by the War Remnants Museum.
Director Courtney Marsh doesn’t break any rules here, but she doesn’t have to. Chau’s arc is very straightforward, a linear triumph of the human spirit. Chau, Beyond the Lines works because Marsh knows when to step back. She doesn’t pad out the running time with emotionally cloying scenes of despair or family drama, even when her subject’s life lends itself to that sort of emotional bluntness. Instead, she lets Chau do his own talking. There’s nothing flashy or artistically ambitious, but it’s still an example of very solid storytelling.
Can it win? The obvious comparison here is 2012’s Inocente, the story of another disadvantaged teen who overcomes adversity to become an artist. That film is about undocumented immigration rather than the after-effects of Agent Orange, but they’re both politically resonant issues told through the inspirational story of a charismatic teenager. There’s a very strong case to be made for Chau, Beyond the Lines.
In addition to the current theatrical release, Chau, Beyond the Lines is currently streaming on Netflix.
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Claude Lanzmann is, in many ways, a man apart. He has devoted an entire career to a single project, one which has lasted decades and which includes likely the greatest documentary ever made. (Man with a Movie Camera ranks higher on the Sight & Sound documentary poll but I’d wager that’s because fewer of those polled have seen all of Shoah.) His reputation as both a genius and an incredibly stubborn man precedes him.
And that reputation is probably why, up until Adam Benzine’s short, there hasn’t been a documentary about him. His controversial persona is evident from the very beginning, especially in the interview footage of longtime colleague and former friend Marcel Ophuls. “He’s a megalomaniac,” the director of The Sorrow and the Pity says of the director of Shoah. Yet Ophuls also considers Shoah to be a masterpiece, perhaps not of filmmaking but of “character.” The success of Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah comes from this understanding. Benzine, who shortly after this opening sequence turns entirely toward talking with Lanzmann himself, gets that any film about the man will by definition be a film about the making of his masterpiece as well. Yet rather than falling into the trap of making a DVD special feature-quality documentary, Benzine gets right at the heart of things. This isn’t a film about Lanzmann’s success, but rather a reminder of how difficult and dangerous Shoah was to make and a serious portrait of the toll this immersion took on the director’s psyche.
Can it win? The stereotype that the Academy always goes for the Holocaust film isn’t nearly as true these days as it once was, nor was it ever really a rule. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is also not even exactly about the Holocaust, at least not in the way that previous winners in this category have been. One wonders if it might be too good a documentary to actually win, in a category where the preferred style on this subject is the insistent thudding of 2013’s gauzy The Lady in Number 6.
In addition to the current theatrical release, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah will air on HBO later this year.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
The story of Saba is not a happy one. A teenager in the Pakistani city of Gujranwala, she was initially engaged to a young man named Qaiser. Then her uncle convinced her parents to break off the engagement. She fled to Qaiser and married him against her parents’ will. In response, her father and uncle took her to a river, shot her in the face and left her for dead. Her survival of this attempted honor killing is not only an exceptional story in and of itself, but also allowed filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to follow the immensely frustrating legal negotiations that followed.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a film about a social structure that does not allow women to make choices for themselves, even when it comes to their rights to justice and safety. Obaid-Chinoy addresses this head-on, not only exposing the larger legal issues around honor killings but also confronting Saba’s father in jail as he awaits trial. There is an overwhelming sense of dread, much of which comes from the musical score and a frequent visual refrain of the river landscape in utter darkness. While it perhaps overplays its emotional hand, A Girl in the River is a very effective polemic on the way Pakistan’s justice system abets honor killings.
Can It Win? Obaid-Chinoy has won before, and for a film with a similar subject. 2012’s Saving Face is about acid violence committed against Pakistani women, many of them in similar situations to Saba’s. It’s a medical drama rather than a legal drama, but they share an editorial bent. The difference, however, is that Saving Face plays up a degree of hopefulness that A Girl in the River doesn’t really have. This is, of course, a totally logical result of the varying political landscape of the two issues. A Girl in the River’s more despaired conclusion can be admired. Yet as far as the Academy is concerned, uplifting endings tend to be better received.
In addition to the current theatrical release, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness will air on HBO later this year.
Last Day of Freedom
In 1980, U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran Manny Babbitt was convicted of the murder of 78-year-old Leah Schendel. He was executed in 1999. Now, years later, his brother Bill shares his story with the world. He explains that brother was suffering from PTSD. He tells of an immensely frustrating trial. But mostly he shares his memories of Manny and their complex relationship, and the day that he had to turn his own brother into the police.
Directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman filter these words through animation. Matching Bill’s voiceover to a cartoon version of himself lends a warm, if mediated intimacy to the film. The most striking use this technique, however, comes in the evocation of Manny’s PTSD. Occasionally the film really taps into the tortured delirium of war memory, depicting helicopters and other blurry recollections of combat. Last Day of Freedom’s weakness is that Hibbert-Jones and Talisman don’t push this far enough, abandoning their more striking images at times to address the legal narrative in detail.
Can It Win? As far as I can tell, an animated documentary hasn’t won this category since Saul Bass’s Why Man Creates back in 1968, though an animated documentary has won Best Animated Short as recently as Ryan in 2004. The better news is that last year this award went to a documentary about veterans’ mental health, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Yet it does seem Last Day of Freedom’s style might be too risky for the Academy, not to mention the film’s understandably downbeat conclusion. For better or worse, it’s hard to win this category if you can’t fall under the label of “inspiring.”
In addition to the current theatrical release, Last Day of Freedom is currently streaming on Netflix.