(Some material may not be not suitable for younger viewers)
I’ve been watching the Short Film Oscar nominees for several years now – every one – in the Animated, Live Action, and Documentary categories. This year, one thing became abundantly clear:
The Academy Award nominees for the Best Documentary Short of 2016 are the best program of Oscar shorts that I’ve ever seen.
They’re also among the best films of 2016, of any length. Three are profoundly relevant, taking tragic looks at the war-torn Middle East, from the front lines to its refugee crisis. The other two, set stateside, explore life, death, and survival. For one in particular, it gives us hope for future because of efforts by those in the present as they seek to extend legacies of the past.
(To read my review of the 2016 Animated Short nominees click here, and for the 2016 Live Action Short nominees click here. They’re currently playing in select theaters, including Circle Cinema in my hometown of Tulsa, OK.)
Here are my capsule reviews of the Best Documentary Short Nominees for 2016, ending with my prediction of Who Will Win. (All would be worthy.)
Because of the total run time, the Best Documentary Shorts are divided up into two feature-length Programs (A and B).
PROGRAM A (3 Shorts) – 76 minutes
4.1 Miles (USA, 22 minutes)
dir. Daphne Matziaraki
Produced by the The New York Times, this follows the dramatic efforts by Greek oceanic rescue crews to save refugees fleeing the Middle East, by way of Turkey, going west across the Aegean Sea. The migrants come by the thousands on a daily basis, with individual rescue teams coming to the aid of hundreds every hour. Similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S. coming from Cuba to Florida, but on a much grander scale, the refugees come by make-shift water craft, packed to the gills, with many becoming gravely ill, or dying, in transit. 4.1 Miles not only tells their story but also that of the rescuers, and the weight of grief and sorrow that compounds in their souls as the onslaught of tragic humanity never ends. It’s heroism in the midst of harrowism.
Extremis (USA, 24 minutes)
dir. Dan Krauss
Set in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, Extremis gives us unbelievable access to patients, doctors, and family members as they wrestle with grave health crises. Through an intimate but never intrusive camera, we watch as loved ones are forced to make sudden, gut-wrenching life-and-death decisions that seem impossible. Complex dynamics with murky ethical lines, our empathy is tapped out as families grieve over their options, or bed-ridden patients cry out pleas; “I’m 38. I don’t want to give my life away yet.” This Netflix short documentary is an absolutely devastating experience, but also one that provokes us to a more active compassion toward those who grieve and experience great loss.
Joe’s Violin (USA, 24 minutes)
dir. Kahane Cooperman
If Extremis wrecked me in the worst way, then Joe’s Violin wrecked me in the best way. Perhaps because I was already tenderized by the Extremis experience, I can’t remember the last time I cried so much (even convulsively) than when I watched Joe’s Violin. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll simply say that this is the story of a Holocaust survivor here in America and what becomes of his precious violin that survived the Holocaust with him. I was bawling like a blubbering idiot, and I was so grateful for that cathartic cleansing. Following the grief of Extremis, this story produced by The New Yorker is a perfect tear-jerker of joy. Of these five shorts, Joe’s Violin is the one begging to be made into a full feature-length movie.
PROGRAM B (2 Shorts) – 85 minutes
The White Helmets (UK, 39 minutes)
dir. Orlando von Einsiedel
Another documentary from Netflix, this follows the brave efforts of humanitarian rescue teams (known as The White Helmets) in war-torn Syria, indigenous first responders who rush to sites where bombings, explosions, and air strikes take place. “Better to rescue a soul than to take one,” says one rescuer who left his insurgent group to save lives instead. These Syrian Civil Defense teams pull people, children, and babies from rubble, even while under threat of more attacks. Imagine being a 9/11 first responder on a daily basis; that’s what these guys do, and they help victims regardless of allegiance in the conflict. The term “heroes” has never been more aptly applied.
Watani: My Homeland (USA, 41 minutes)
dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen
Another look at the Syrian conflict but from a domestic angle, with a focus on the children. Watani (which means My Homeland) follows a family torn apart by ISIS who eventually seeks refuge in Germany. The first half is chilling, from children reflexively jumping at possible bombings to seeing little kids “play terrorist” by mimicking violent acts in eerie, casual fashion. Watani is also hopeful in how profoundly grateful families are to Germany for its generosity. They see Germany as a haven, a beautiful promised land. This is convicting to us as Americans, reminding us of how our nation used to be seen by the world, but Watani is also honest about the fact that the refugee situation in Germany remains complex. In the end, the definition of “homeland” becomes complex as well. But ultimately, it’s family.
And with that, my prediction for who will win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film:
In an impossibly tough call, here’s my thinking: 4.1 Miles, The White Helmets, and Watani all cancel each other out because of their thematic and topical similarities. Of the two remaining, both of which take us through the emotional wringer, Joe’s Violin is the one that’s heart-warming, uplifting, and hopeful. It affirms our humanity, and it’s the one that makes us feel better about the world after having watched all the others.