Tuesday, February 09, 2016

OVP: Documentary Short Film (2015)

OVP: Best Documentary Short Film (2014)

The Nominees Were...

David Darg and Bryn Mooser, Body Team 12
Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck, Chau, Behind the Lines
Adam Benzine, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, Last Day of Freedom

My Thoughts: One of the biggest drawbacks of the Oscar Viewing Project when I conceived it so many moons ago (It's been over 3.5 years since I retook up on the blog-I'm hoping you're enjoying the now over 1500 articles at your disposal as much as I've enjoyed writing them!) I realized that a couple of things weren't going to be feasible.  There are, of course, certain films that I simply was never going to be watching unless Jack Warner's granddaughter finds something in her attic, but I also knew that tracking down the short films and documentary films, almost never in the same sort of circulation as the narrative, feature-length films, would be a lost cause.  That being said, I also made a vow to see them and write about them if I had a chance, and luckily for me we have the amazing people at ShortsHD who annually screen the documentary, live action, and animated shorts in theaters.  We should hopefully get to the other nominated films soon, but for right now, we'll start with the documentary shorts.

I will admit first-hand that this category is one that I never quite know how to approach, and that's true for Body Team 12, a film that has emerged as close to frontrunner status as one can get in this sporadic category. The film is considerably briefer than the other movies, clocking it at least 17 minutes shorter than the next quickest film, but arguably has the most recent and pertinent film subject, that of the ebola crisis in Liberia.  The film takes place during what appears to be the height of the ebola crisis, and while the subject matter lends a gravitas to the proceedings, the film itself feels like little more than a moment in time sort of documentary, where they chronicle the life of a brave aid worker.  The film doesn't really impress cinematically, even if (of course) getting this kind of footage probably deserves some sort of reward in its own right.  The film simply hits familiar story beats and may come too late after us enduring weeks of similar-style reporting on CNN every night as the Ebola crisis was covered ad nauseam.

The same cannot be said for Chau, a film about the decades of after-effects caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam.  The film follows Chau, a young man with severe body deformations affecting his arms and legs, who aspires to paint, but must use his mouth to be able to accomplish his visions.  Chau is, in fact, quite skilled and eventually gets a job painting for a series of office spaces, and continues to be deeply optimistic about his situation.  It's the sort of film where tears fall easily, but I have to admit that the filmmaking style left me a bit cold.  The movie may have made more of an impact if we'd gotten a little bit into how to fix the problem of Agent Orange (I like activist documentaries, personally), but instead it goes for the most easily-emotional beats (who doesn't think that this is a great tragedy while watching, even if Chau is incredibly uplifting).  I guess the filmmaking left us with the broadest strokes possible of the story, which ends up feeling more like a profile you'd see on a morning talk show than an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Another documentary with a pretty broadly-supportive subject, but which gets further insights into its issue is The Girl in the River.  Telling the story of a Pakistani girl who is shot in the face and left for dead in an "honor killing" by her father and uncle after she decides to marry a neighbor boy they don't approve of, the film could on the surface be a portrait of the atrocities that are targeted at women in certain areas of the world.  The film, however, gets deeper and is surely the movie where you're most impressed at the filmmakers' interview skills, as we get true depictions not just of a girl who feels very ahead-of-her-time and who is forced to deal with a society that does not remotely have her best interests at heart, but also at the decision-making process of the men who oppress her rights (we see a progressive lawyer try to convince the village elders to see the attack as vicious and not something that simply dishonored her male relatives), but also we get a portrait of her father and uncle as they are interviewed in a prison.  The film's trick is that we get to see an alien, almost mad-man's look at how his pride goes above his child's well-being, and we see how justice doesn't come for our protagonist, and she is merely rewarded with not being killed.  There isn't a happy ending, but it's the documentary that made me the angriest of the bunch and made me want to go out and advocate the hardest, so that says something for its potency.

Theoretically Last Day of Freedom plays it a little less safe, keeping its film entirely animated (has a film ever been nominated for both animated and documentary in the short categories-let me know if you know in the comments!), and actually tackling a subject that the audience in the theater might not instantly agree with (everyone is against ebola and murdering your daughter in an American audience, less so the death penalty).  This presents a distinctive style to the film that should set it apart more and make it the most relevant, but the actual film itself doesn't really address a lot of the moral complexities of the death penalty, instead just presenting it entirely as an issue that should be condemned.  This may line up, admittedly, with your own personal and moral beliefs, but it misses the mark particularly in a western audience where this is the only "hot-button" topic of the four that has a robust debate over whether or not it should be legalized (we never hear, for example, anything from the family of the murdered woman, just from the family of the perpetrator).  As a result of this, I felt the coolest on this film in terms of the argument that it made, and wished that it relied less on pure emotion and more on some reasoned facts as it went along.

The final film to come out during my screening was Spectres of the Shoah.  The film interviews Claude Lanzmann, the director of the landmark 1985 documentary, and we are emerged into the world of his film process, having him recount the events that led up to the eventual release of Shoah.  The film is gripping watching a man talk about his singular masterpiece, and the profound effect it had on the world of film (it is considered by many to be the greatest documentary ever made), and I love the way the filmmaker unfolds the movie, giving us stories that Lanzmann is comfortable recounting, and then eventually some where he's not (like when he covertly interviews a former Nazi officer with a hidden camera).  The movie itself also frames up Lanzmann as deeply complicated, and occasionally conflicted about his reputation and the film that he made, and I thought the entire endeavor was fascinating considering Lanzmann's place in the world of documentary-interviewing to see him become the subject, rather than the man behind the camera.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Academy releases a shortlist of the films eligible for this award so we know that 50 Feet from Syria, Minerita, The Testimony, Starting Point, and My Enemy, My Brother were all quite close to being included on this list.  I have to think that this is one of the cruelest shortlists to miss from, as the difference between your film making it to the Dolby or not is the difference between your film's audience growing about 1000x what it normally would have been.
Films I Would Have Nominated: Sadly they don't put short films before films with regularity anymore (don't you wish they did?) and so I don't get to see enough nominees to complain.
Oscar’s Choice: While pundits expected Body Team 12, the emotional gut-punch of Girl in the River won Obaid-Chinoy her second statue.
My Choice: Hands down Spectres of the Shoah, which is both the most cinematic and the most thought-provoking for me.  I'd follow that with Girl in the River, Body Team 12, Last Day of Freedom, and Chau.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Did you see these documentary films, and if so, who were you cheering for?  And if not, who is still what you're marking on your Oscar predictions ballot?

Past Documentary Short Film Contests: 2014

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