Welcome back to another year of coverage of the Oscar Nominated Short Films. Unlike last year, I was actually able to see the documentary package in theaters and it will serve as our lead off (the other two will come later this week). It also meant that while I was able to see every title, I wasn’t able to space them out the way I could last year. Once again, I’ll be tackling these shorts one by one as well as providing links when possible to where you can see them legally for free or as part of a subscription if you aren’t interested in shelling out for the VOD package or heading to the theater (if that’s even possible). This time out, you can actually see them all for free assuming you have Netflix Instant which let’s be honest, you or someone you know already does.
Black Sheep (UK) – Filmed as a talking head against a black background and interspersed with reenactments, the first segment is a dark recounting of one man’s struggle to fit in. A Nigerian immigrant whose parents moved him out of South London after a 10-year-old neighbor was stabbed to death moves into an all-white neighborhood in Sussex and unsurprisingly, things do not go well. He is harassed and beat up with it taking a toll on him and his family (which in turn further takes a toll on him). In response, he responds by trying to dress, act, and physically look more like those white assholes so that they will leave accept him. Did I mention it’s a dark installment? There’s no satisfaction to be had here and it certainly holds up an unvarnished look at reality, but it’s held back by one major factor. It can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a doc or a generic live action short with the reenactments adding little to nothing to the frank and direct recounting.
End Game (USA) – There was a person in the audience who was hoping that the next installment would be less dark. Clearly, they have never been to one of these before since dark and depressing is the name of the game when it comes to documentary shorts. I had to stifle a laugh even before I saw the name of the next short come up because I knew they were in for a long night. End Game is Netflix’s entry this year (after getting in Heroin(e) last year) and it focuses on end of life care.
The two settings are UCSF Medical Center where the focus is on the palliative care they provide and the Zen Hospice Care facility. The former features people working together to ensure that patients an make the proper decisions and get the proper physical, mental, and spiritual care. These are difficult decisions, both for the patients and for those around them who don’t want to give up on them and for which hospice is often a dirty word, but also don’t want to see them suffer. A character at one point says there is no wrong answer, but the subtext seems to be that there may not be a right one either. It’s also made clear that these decisions are so much easier in a vacuum and once you or your loved ones are actually facing death, it all changes and those decisions don’t become strictly logical, nor perhaps should they.
While the last segment was darker and perhaps more depressing just for the way it shows how awful society truly is, this one is more just crushing watching people struggle in the face of death, clinging to last bits of hope even as you the viewer know that there is none for any of these people. Mitra, a cancer patient who is clearly (to the audience at least) nearing the end, is perhaps the most central story and the one you will probably get most attached to, though it does follow a number of people including a triple amputee doctor who works with a number of them. It may be trying to tug at the heartstrings almost too obviously, but I can’t say that it’s not effective at getting me invested as well as drawing attention (with a compassionate hand) to how complicated things get.
A Night at the Garden (USA) – By far the shortest of the documentaries is this one which is almost entirely constructed of archival footage with a single text screen at the end to sum it up. It details a Nazi rally (sorry a Pro-American Rally) held at Madison Square Garden on February 20th, 1939. It’s extraordinarily minimalist in presentation considering that aside from one moment which is put into slow motion, it could just as easily have been newsreel footage from the era. It’s clear why director Marshall Curry used the footage he did with the Nazis reciting the pledge and national anthem or the boy scout doing a little dance after someone rushing the stage gets beat up (“it’s just like today!” with a side of dramatic irony), but it’s way too insubstantial. There’s something about it being listed on the same marquee as hockey though that stuck with me probably more than anything else, perhaps because it has that comparison between the mundane and the horrific.
LIFEBOAT (USA) – With systemic racism, terminal illness, and Nazis in the US out of the way, what’s up next? Oh goody, its people fleeing North Africa and the Middle East for Europe in a trip where thousands die every year (1/18 who try to cross). The film generally avoids the issue from the perspective of what happens to those migrants when they get to Europe, instead concentrating on the hardships that they are escaping and the work going into saving the many who are stranded at sea. Sea-Watch is one of those organizations operating in that area, with the ship’s captain at the center of the film an ex-whaler hunter who now searches the Mediterranean searching for these ramshackle boats, rescuing those in distress. They have to work quickly with limited space, unloading overcrowded, under-supplied boats with people dead and dying on them.
The migrants themselves are also given a chance to tell their tales and while they are varied, they have a lot of similarity to them. The majority are escaping a terrible prison, one in which they have been often been kidnapped (sometimes to be sold into prostitution), frequently on spurious grounds. They are looking for opportunity in Europe, sure, but more than anything this is a choice between a chance at surviving or death. At the very least, it’s a call for compassion if nothing else. The short’s a bit overdone in the score department, but otherwise well done.
Period. End of Sentence. (USA) – Netflix’s second nominee (not that they are credited on this one) is set in Hapur, India, located 60 miles outside of New Delhi. The “Period” of the title of course refers to menstruation, a subject which there remains a lack of knowledge about in the country in both females and especially males. It is something that causes so many difficulties and only adds to the discrimination that women face in the patriarchal society of rural India. A lot of the women there still use cloths (sometimes of questionable cleanliness) as pads are only used by less than 10% of the population. As part of a push to expand their usage and with the help of one man’s low cost machine to make pads, a group of women start making their own, packaging it, and selling them. It’s a major taboo and men can’t even seem to acknowledge they exist. They act like the machine is something that is used to make children’s diapers.
Still, it’s a story of female empowerment and even as it tackles a serious subject, this is the one short with a bit of humor. It’s a smart way to end the package and a nice relief from all the downer bits that came before. We even get a positive story about someone wanting to be a cop (can’t make that story in the US), with the employment the pad project provides offering financial freedom and corresponding respect that they are not often afforded. It’s heartwarming and even if the short feels a bit disjointed, it’s still a welcome one.