Sunday, February 17, 2019

2019 Documentary Short Oscar Nominees: The Reviews

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This is the first year which I have seen all five Documentary Short Oscar nominees.  The nominated films are a collection of downright depressing stories with only one offering any sense of hope or joy. Ranging in time from a mere seven minutes to a lengthy forty, the Documentary Short Oscar nominees are almost all well-crafted with fascinating stories to tell but all but one leaving you in deep existential crisis.

They were presented in the following order:

Black Sheep: 27 minutes
End Game: 40 minutes
A Night at The Garden: 7 minutes
Lifeboat: 34 minutes
Period. End of Sentence: 26 minutes


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NOMINEE ONE: BLACK SHEEP

Consisting of an interview with the film's subject, Cornelius Walker, along with reenactments of his story, Black Sheep is Cornelius' strange and sad story. His family flees London after a child who like the Walkers was an African immigrant is murdered. Essex, however, is not a safe place: far from it. Cornelius encounters all sorts of racism from racial epithets to violence. To survive a community where he sees 'different shades of white', he soon starts attempting a literal physical transformation. It goes from dressing and sounding more like his white counterparts to ordering blue contacts and even skin bleaching.

To his surprise/horror, he slowly becomes accepted by these racists, down to even being with them when they harass other black men, then when using racist terms they say "We don't mean you, Corny, but them".  Cornelius tells us of how the anger of his life: his father's lack of attention and the corroding effects of his surroundings, eventually led him to attack someone who had done nothing to him, the guilt still with him. "I wanted love, so yeah, I made friends with monsters".

Black Sheep is one of those 'strange but true' stories that keeps things simple by giving us just Walker in close-up and reenactments. It makes one think that these racists have an amazing way of compartmentalizing things: here is the only black kid they know whom they've beaten up but whom they accept as 'one of their own'. It's the strangest form of acceptance I have come across, and it makes me wonder whether people accept others who are different physically if they seem to have the same mindset.

The one flaw in Black Sheep that I found was in the reenactments, which struck me as too artsy for me to consider it a pure documentary. At the end we see the real Cornelius and the actor playing him facing off in a field, and I find such touches a bit too poetic. It's a sad and bizarre story.

DECISION: B-


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NOMINEE TWO: END GAME

End Game comes from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have made such documentaries as The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (both of which have won Oscars for Documentary Features) as well as The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175. End Game, however, does not center around gay issues. Instead, End Game is about the end of life care.

The main story is about Mitra, a 45-year-old midwife and mother from Iran who is dying of cancer at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. She has her good days and her bad days, sometimes bright, awake and cheerful, sometimes barely conscious. Keeping watch over her are her husband and her mother. To them, 'hospice' means death with no hope. 'Palliative' care, however, which is "to live as well as possible as long as possible" seems a better option.

We also look on the Zen Hospice Guest Center, which is overseen by BJ Miller, M.D., who has one hand and artificial legs due to a teenage accident. At the Zen Hospice we meet some inbound and outbound patients. Pat, an African-American woman facing her own death through cancer, is the primary focus here.

We see in Mitra's story the agonizing decisions when there is literally no chance of survival, and of Dr. Miller's push to make death as accepted as life, less something to fear than something to if not make friends with at least get to know.

End Game is not a film to watch if you are struggling with the emotional impact of someone you love dying. It is painful, brutal and tragic. Seeing Mitra in happier days via the photos on her mother's phone, hearing her husband Hamid in Persian tell someone on the phone that his son asked "If Mommy dies, who will take care of me?" hits the viewer hard.

It's a question whether End Game can help people accept the reality of death, more so when the end comes coldly and slowly at us versus a sudden death. I don't know if the film was right in giving us glimpses of other patients we don't get to know when Mitra's story seemed the focus. I also leave it up to the viewer if End Game veers towards death porn, for that would depend on how comfortable a viewer is on seeing death so up-close. We don't see anyone actually die, but we do see families and individuals in deep physical and emotional pain.

End Game touches on an important subject, one many find very uncomfortable. Despite being close to an hour we barely touch on the subject of impending death, but End Game is an excellent feature on this most difficult subject.

DECISION: B+


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NOMINEE THREE: 
A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN

A Night at The Garden is the odd duck in this slate. Consisting entirely of archival footage with no narration or interviews, the film chronicles a "pro-American Rally" at New York City's Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 of the German-American Bund, a Nazi-supporting group in the United States. We see the massive rally with its near-endless flags and Hitler Youth-type drum corps, a speech by Fritz Kunh, a brief disruption by protester Isadore Greenbaum, and the singing of the National Anthem.

My issues with A Night at The Garden are a few. The speaker tells his audience that they know who he is, even making jokes in his heavy German accent about how he supposedly had hoofs if you believed "the Jewish press". However, we do not know who he is. We don't know who the protester was that stormed the stage either. What drew all these 20,000 people to this rally?

These questions are left unanswered.

I also sense that A Night at The Garden is supposed to make me think there's a correlation between this Nazi rally and today's divisive politics.  I don't know if that was the intent but I could not shake that idea. I've never heard anyone call for a "Gentile-run United States", but if the film wanted me to think that this rally was a throwback to today, I was not sold.

There were, however, some very effective and creepy moments. We see shots of children excited over the on-stage kerfuffle, and the slow-motion agony at the protester being forced off the stage is chilling. A Night at The Garden is slight, not too informative but with some fascinating footage that hopefully will allow for a greater exploration on the topic.

DECISION: C+


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NOMINEE FOUR: LIFEBOAT

Lifeboat chronicles the work of Sea-Watch, a German nonprofit that monitors the Libyan coast for people fleeing across the Mediterranean from Africa to reach Europe. We see them finding groups of migrants/refugees, packed tightly in small crafts, some barely seaworthy.

We get interviews with individuals rescued, though curiously the two nationalities represented are from nations we usually do not hear of as part of this human wave: Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The stories from mostly women and one man are heartbreaking: of extortion, of being imprisoned in Libya, of seeing children being sold into slavery or worse. We also see children, tired and crying.

In this maelstrom of human misery is Captain Jon Castle (1950-2018), who offers his sad observations on the human condition and what he sees. "The mind is a tool but the heart is where your real thinking comes," he observes, adding that the further away we are from the situation, the easier it is to forget that each person rescued (3,200 in the three days Lifeboat covers) and each person washed up on the shores of Tripoli is an individual, a person no different than you or I.  "We could be those people, and in the end we have to remember, those are our fellows".

Lifeboat offers no narration. Instead, it allows the horrors the people fleeing to come at us. It offers no solution or explanation about the people's reasons to make this dangerous crossing. This is an important topic too, and Lifeboat does an excellent job giving us a primer on a most complex and tragic story.

DECISION: B+


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NOMINEE FIVE: PERIOD. 
END OF SENTENCE

Period. End of Sentence, our final film, is the only one that has any sense of hope and optimism to it, a balm after all the tragedy the viewer has been hit with.

In rural India, menstruation is so taboo that it's not just women who either don't know or don't talk about it. Men too seem puzzled at to what exactly goes on: one group of men when asked say that menstruation is 'an illness that mostly affects girls'. Into this scenario comes a sanitary pad machine. With some training, the women are now able to make clean pads for themselves, allowing them greater mobility and a lessening of the stigma surrounding this biological act.

The women manufacture the sanitary pads into the open market under the name "Fly" and begin slowly but surely selling them both to shops and individuals. The funds will in turn allow one girl, Sneha, to essentially escape arranged marriage plans and let her follow her dream of being part of the Delhi Police.

Period. End of Sentence has an excellent pun to its title, but it also has a very positive and uplifting story that men and women can rally around. We see genuine struggles against the patriarchy and how the women are using their own initiative to make inroads for something that is vital to them. It's uplifting on two levels: showing women in business and showing women taking steps to change preconceived notions in their society about their place in said society. While perhaps the film sometimes forgot about Sneha, Period. End of Sentence is both informative and joyful.

As a side note, I do not understand why such things as menstruation are seen as things to giggle or be ashamed of. It's a perfectly biological process that is nothing to bring about shame or embarrassment.

DECISION: A-

For me, Period. End of Sentence is the best because it's the only one that gives me any sense of hope. There is strong quality in almost all the nominees, as each one does look at important topics in a concise manner.

I cannot offer predictions, but I can offer my ranking of them from Best to Worst (though 'worst' is a misnomer).

Period. End of Sentence.
End Game
Lifeboat
Black Sheep
A Night at The Garden

Each Documentary Short Nominee is worth seeing if the chance arrives, though fair warning: if you are sad or depressed, skip them all save Period. End of Sentence. If you can manage some rather dour subjects, then see any of them.

Best of luck to them all on February 24.

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