Review: 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Documentary)

Directed by Anthony Giacchino
France, 25m
Available on YouTube for free here

“Once I cross into Germany, I won’t ever be the same.” Colette, a 90-year-old former member of the French Resistance during WWII, says these words before making her first-ever journey to the concentration camp where her older brother died at age 17. Inspired by the writing of Lucie Fouble, a young graduate student, Colette joins Lucie on her journey, where the two of them bond. Those averse to documentaries where their subjects cry on camera may need to avoid this one, but I personally found it a hugely moving film. Colette’s current journey is interspersed with her family history (her family was part of the 1% of French people who resisted the occupying German army), and the blend of the two subjects are perfectly balanced and do not wallow in atrocity. Colette is a perfect subject to follow: at ninety years old, she can be brusque, but she is clever and a good talker, and it is clear that she has more feelings about her brother and her history than she wants to admit. Towards the end, when she and Lucie visit the ruins of where her brother died, I was crying a bit, too: not because the film attempts to shock you with grotesque imagery and depictions of tragedies, but because of the newfound friendship formed between the two. “We support each other,” Lucie says as they walk through the ruins, and the film which once appeared to be about World War Two history becomes about the importance of connection before it’s too late. Perfect.
Rating: 10/10

A Concerto Is a Conversation
Directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers
US, 13m
Available on YouTube for free here

I’m a little worried that I’m going to be too hard on this one. It’s fine! It’s inoffensive! It’s thirteen minutes! With that out of the way, I’m going to talk about all the stuff I didn’t like about it. The film consists of a conversation between composer Kris Bowers (best known for scoring Green Book) and his grandfather Horace right before Kris premieres his new concerto, “To My Younger Self.” Appropriately, Kris and Horace talk about their younger selves, but their talk unfortunately isn’t very interesting. It’s also framed so that both men talk directly into the camera instead of looking at each other, and that choice is very distracting. Horace’s side of the conversation is at least important, as he talks about growing up in the Jim Crow South and his adventures running a dry cleaning business after he moves to Los Angeles. There’s an interesting topic to consider about Horace’s experiences in a time of severe racial segregation, yet also a time of the American Dream, where he could purchase his own business at 20 after being homeless at 18. The movie is too short to really have that conversation or draw connections between the two aspects of history. Horace’s story of getting ahead in the cleaning world despite regular discrimination is interesting, while Kris’ story is that he really liked music and so he became a musician. It’s fine! It’s inoffensive! Listen to Kris Bowers’ music in the film “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” coming out this summer to theaters near you!
Rating: 6/10

Do Not Split
Directed by Anders Hammer
US-Norway (Chinese, English), 35m
Available on YouTube for free here

This short film captures the 2019 Hong Kong protests from the front lines against the Chinese government and police. With a heavy emphasis on front line footage, the audience sees how Hammer put himself in real danger filming these activities, and following the perspective of several protesters prevents the film from being overly expository. The film didn’t grab me and feels a little too long, but I appreciated having a timeline of the protests. A brief epilogue concerns the coronavirus pandemic and the future of the relationship between the citizens and government. Overall, this short is informative and interesting, but ultimately doesn’t have too much new to say by the end.
Rating: 7/10

Hunger Ward
Directed by Skye Fitzgerald
US/Yemen, 40m
Available for free on Pluto TV and for a fee on Paramount+

How long can a short ask us to look at starving, dying children until art crosses off into misery? This documentary talks about the war in Yemen by focusing on a malnutrition ward in a local hospital and the doctors that work to save the children there. It’s not exploitative, since the camerawork and tone are both very detached, but there are so many trigger warnings I have to provide, and none of them have any larger purpose. It’s just 40 minutes of suffering, without any political or historical context-information that the war is being conducted by Saudi Arabia and primarily backed by the US, and that several other countries are complicit in it, are saved for the end titles. None of the doctors have many character traits: not that I want the film to focus on the doctors anyway, because with more doctors come more starving children. Give us something to get mad at instead of just wallowing in misery. Instead of blaming any particular policies by the US or any particular geopolitical discussion, it just wants to show you pictures of bombed-out buildings and contextless tragedy- I respect that the effect is not meant to shock, but it’s boring. I looked at my phone.
(Also, this opens with a quote from Watchmen, except it says it’s from “The Watchmen.” The Pluto TV stream has commercial breaks and I had to watch several commercials about joining the US military. No thank you.)
Rating: 5/10

A Love Song For Latasha
Directed by Sophia Nahli Allison
US, 19m
Available on Netflix

Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl, was shot and killed in 1991 in a convenience store. She was shot by the owner of the store after she accused her of stealing a $2 bottle of orange juice; video footage of the incident, which occurred 13 days after the attacks on Rodney King, served as a major catalyst for the 1982 Los Angeles riots. Instead of using her name as a reference point in history, this documentary tells her story. Images of the LA scene blend with archive footage of Latasha and her family, talking heads of friends and family, and, in one memorable scene, hand-drawn abstract animation. The result is a moving tribute to a person who deserves to be remembered as more than a statistic.
Rating: 8/10