(Parental Discretion advised)
During every Oscar ceremony, there’s a stretch of categories with nominees that virtually no one has ever even heard of, let alone seen: the shorts.
Divided into three competitive groups – Animated, Live Action, and Documentary – the Academy Award nominated shorts can make-or-break a person’s Oscar pool ballot.
Thankfully, for several years now, the slate of nominated shorts have been made available in separate feature-length programs to movie theaters nationwide. This year, many theaters (like Circle Cinema in my city of Tulsa) have debuted one program per week leading up to the Oscars.
Below is a look at the five films nominated as Best Documentary Short for 2017, ending with my prediction of Who Will Win.
Given the length of the Doc shorts, the five nominees have been divided into two different feature-length programs.
PROGRAM A (run time 102 minutes)
Traffic Stop (USA, 30 minutes)
dir. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
More activist than journalistic, this account of a routine traffic stop gone wrong is embarrassingly one-sided. There’s a legitimate exposé to be had here about racial bias and police overreach, but the filmmakers aren’t interested in the culpability Breaion King shared in how this unfortunate incident went down. Acting more like King’s personal best friend than objective documentarians, directors Davis and Heilbroner paint a profile that should have King voted Texan of the year, while intentionally avoiding any interviews with the policemen involved (because director Kate Davis didn’t want to “dilute the power of Breaion’s life story.”) And when King compares her incident to Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to hold back the impulsive eye roll. There are a lot of legitimate stories of minority injustice out there. This may actually be one of them, but not how it’s told here. Traffic Stop feels like opportunism, and borderline propaganda.
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (USA, 40 minutes)
dir. Frank Stiefel
Don’t get sidetracked by the confusing, too-clever-for-its-own-good title. This is a deeply moving portrait of Mindy Alper, a 56-year-old woman who has suffered with phobias her entire life. Depression, anxiety, and social triggers were compounded as a child by a complicated relationship with her mother (who was ill-equipped to care for the needs of her daughter) and an emotionally-distant father, not to mention the demands of mid-20th Century societal norms and expectations. What unfolds is a confessional inventory by both Mindy and her mother, and coming to terms with regrets and forgiveness. A big part of that healing process comes in the form of Mindy’s gallery-worthy art of sketches and sculptures. A fragility remains inside her, and always will, but Mindy also possesses a beauty and tenderness to aspire to, with simple dreams that are universal.
Edith + Eddie (USA, 29 minutes)
dir. Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights
Edith and Eddie are an interracial couple that fell in love at first sight – in their mid-90s. This cute and unlikely love story ends up being too good for this world when one of Edith’s daughter’s (who lives states away) suddenly becomes a possessive caretaker after Edith and Eddie win a small-stakes $5,000 lottery ticket. The power that one greedy relative can wield over the elderly – with government assistance, no less – makes for a gut-wrenching dose of reality. This is absolutely infuriating and heartbreaking.
PROGRAM B (run time 82 minutes)
Heroin(e) (USA, 39 minutes)
dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
Three different women – a paramedic, a judge, and one with a street ministry to addicts – work in tandem to confront the drug and opioid crisis in Huntington, WV. With a mixture of tough love and genuine empathy, the people they help know that every decision made is one born of care, not judgment, even when it involves incarceration. What these women are doing doesn’t solve the problem (nor should they be expected to), but they set an example unlike any other of how to deal with the problem – with firm humanity. As a recovered addict says of one of them, through tears: “It ain’t just a job to her. She cares.” These are real life Wonder Women.
Knife Skills (USA, 40 minutes)
dir. Thomas Lennon
Another inspiring story of tackling societal ills head-on, Knife Skills highlights a top tier gourmet French restaurant in Cleveland, OH that builds its entire staff out of newly-released prisoners. The process also works as a training and graduation program, and the man who runs it isn’t your average altruistic white man; he used to be one of them. The process is tough. It’s hard. It’s not easy, and it’s not a charity. Some don’t make it. But for those who do – a few of which are highlighted in moving testimonials – it’s truly life-changing. Stats about prison and recidivism help put this worthy endeavor into a meaningful, sobering context, making for the kind of film that should be shown in every middle school and high school (especially in high crime districts) as well as prisons, and even to business leaders of communities big and small. This is a tear-jerker and a heart-warmer, in part because of how gritty and honest it is, and gives you an authentic hope for our future at a time when we so desperately need it.
Aside from Traffic Stop, which is problematic to its core, the Documentaries offer the best collection of short films from this year’s three Academy Award short categories. Seek these out, whether you’re an Oscar nerd or not.
And with that, my prediction for who will win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film of 2017:
I’d originally predicted Traffic Stop, feeling that it’s the kind of social justice bait Academy voters wouldn’t be able to resist. That still may end up being true, but I’m going to bet on Netflix pushing Heroin(e) through – pun intended – to the win, and it’d be a very worth one (as would any of the non-Traffic Stop shorts).