Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Short Film

Nurse Garmai Sumo in the Oscar-nominated documentary short Body Team 12.

At long last, I’ve arrived at the summit of my Oscar-nominated short film mountain. Having covered the Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film nominees, the last leg of my journey is devoted to discussing 2016’s Academy Award-nominated Documentary Short Films. While I was looking forward to being an insufferable blowhard and boasting about having seen every nominated short film at whatever Oscar party I (probably won’t) attend, I’m sorry to report that some dreams really don’t come true. As it so happens, I have seen every 2016 nominated short film except one: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. While it’s rare to find a cinema that’s screening the Live Action and Animated shorts, it’s rarer still to find one showing the Documentaries. Alas, my local short-film-friendly theatre, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, is unable to screen A Girl in the River, due to “rights issues.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s second Academy Award-nominated film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is distributed by HBO (it is worth noting that 3 of 5 nominees this year are) and tells the story of a young Pakistani woman who survives an honour killing exacted as punishment for eloping with her lover. At the urging of community elders, she ultimately forgives her attackers. In the interest of fairness, I’ll be omitting A Girl in the River from my ranking, instead focusing on the four documentaries that I was able to see. It’s unclear whether or not A Girl in the River will be included when ShortsHD releases the Oscar nominated shorts for pay-per-view download on February 23rd but critical reception from critics who have actually seen the film suggests it’s worth looking into.

Without further ado, here’s my ranking of the rest of this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Short Film:

A scene from Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman's Last Day of Freedom.

#4. Last Day of Freedom – This short film directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman tells an important and heartbreaking story about post-traumatic stress disorder and one man’s agonizing decision to turn his brother in for murder. Soft-spoken Bill Babbit recounts the story of his brother Manny who fought in the Vietnam War and struggled with debilitating mental illness upon returning to the United States. After increasingly bizarre behaviour culminates in a period of homelessness, Manny moves in with Bill until one fateful day when Bill realizes that his brother has murdered an elderly lady. Babbit touches on his misplaced trust in the police when he turned Manny in, and the disastrous trial that landed his brother with the death penalty (Manny Babbit was executed May 4th 1999 at San Quentin State Prison), focusing on his personal experience of grief and remorse and only very minimally voicing his anger at the system that indisputably failed his brother. Unfortunately, the way Hibbert-Jones and Talisman present Last Day of Freedom is an issue I can’t get past. All 32 minutes of the short film are animated in a style that blends hand-drawn illustrations with rotoscoping and feels not only inappropriate but also immensely annoying. The drawn lines wiggle and jump around on a stark white background before the screen abruptly changes to black and then back again in a way that was often so jarring and hard on the eyes that I frequently had to look away. The A Scanner Darkly-esque technique also transforms Bill Babbit from a human being into a strange cartoon alien, imposing an unnecessary and largely counter-productive distance between the subject and the audience. The scoring and sound editing produced similarly dissonant and unpleasant effects. One could argue that Hibbert-Jones and Talisman made these artistic choices to mimic the disorienting and jarring nature of PTSD but, all in all, the end result is a highly stylized eclipse of the story they’re trying to tell.

Le Minh Chau in Chau, Beyond the Lines

#3. Chau, Beyond the Lines A collaborative effort from the United States and Vietnam, Chau, Beyond the Lines focuses on a disabled teen and his rise to maturity and independence. The title alludes to colouring; Le Minh Chau grows up in a home for children disabled by Agent Orange and regularly struggles with this task. He dreams of becoming an artist despite derision from his caretakers and the crippling physical deformities that leave him without “normal” use of his limbs. Director Courtney Marsh demonstrates remarkable restraint by only including what is essential to Chau’s story, keeping the film to a trim 34 minutes instead of extending it into a feature, even though the camera crew appears to have filmed throughout most of Chau’s adult life. The camerawork is largely unremarkable except for several recurring shots at Chau’s group home that show visitors stopping outside the children’s bedroom to take tourist photos of the Agent Orange victims. The younger children happily pose for the camera while Chau wallows discouraged in the foreground. Chau, Beyond the Lines is a hopeful film above all else; after substantial trial and tribulation, Chau does indeed achieve his goal and now works full time as a painter, reminding us that even the most daunting obstacles can be overcome with hard work and dedication.

A scene from Body Team 12.

#2. Body Team 12 At 13 minutes, this documentary short out of Liberia is not even half as long as the next shortest nominee. Nonetheless, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, boldly following a Red Cross team responsible for collecting the bodies of Ebola victims in Monrovia, Libera. “Body Team 12” as they call themselves, and have proudly emblazoned on their truck, is significant because it has only one female member, nurse Garmai Sumo, who narrates the film and conducts her duties with great bedside manner. Backed by executive producers Olivia Wilde and Paul Allen, Body Team 12 is perhaps the most tragic and heartbreaking out of the four nominated films I got to see. That said, in spite of all the death and hazmat suits, the distraught mothers and uncooperative sons, Sumo and her team carry out their duty with a deep sense of purpose, reminding us (and often bereaved, unpredictable crowds) that removing the bodies of people’s loved ones is necessary in order to eradicate Ebola in the country they so desperately love. Director David Darg and his team crafted a really fascinating, inspiring piece at great personal risk that everyone should take 13 minutes to appreciate.

Claude Lanzmann with Simone de Beauvoir in 1952, from Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah .

#1. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah Sometimes in a race there is one competitor that is so obviously cut out to be the winner that it verges on laughable. While I should reiterate that I haven’t seen the last competitor, A Girl in the River, and I’m open to the possibility that it’ll blow Adam Benzine’s documentary out of the water, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah seems to be exactly that. At 40 minutes, Spectres of the Shoah verges on being (and maybe should have been) a feature. In a decidedly meta fashion, the documentary tells the story of the making of another documentary, specifically Lanzmann’s 9+ hour 1985 masterpiece on the Holocaust, Shoah. Full disclosure: I am ashamed to admit that I have not seen Shoah, nor did I realize that I should see Shoah (I blame this mostly on the fact that I didn’t exist until 1988), but you can bet I will be watching Lanzmann's film as soon as I have 10 hours to spare. A film so perfect that Roger Ebert refused to rank it among that year's best films, saying it “belonged to a class itself,” Shoah reportedly took Lanzmann twelve years and over 350 hours of raw footage to make. Spectres of the Shoah uses one well-conducted, present-day interview with Lanzmann intercut with some of the original, previously-unseen 1973-85 footage from the making of Shoah to explore Claude Lanzmann’s life during these years and the irreversible emotional and psychological damage he suffered for his creation. Adam Benzine also takes a couple detours to discuss Lanzmann’s significant relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre. Spectres of the Shoah composes a portrait of a man so compelling and singularly focused on expressing what he needed to express that it’s impossible to turn away. Distributed by HBO and Cinephil, it should also come as no surprise that the production values were excellent.

With a week to go before the Oscars, there’s still time to catch the year’s nominated short films in theatres or, after February 23rd, from the comfort of your own home via iTunes or Google Play.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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