Last but not least, Projection: Oscar concludes its three-part odyssey into this year’s Oscar-nominated short films with a close-up exploration of the documentary short subjects. And the “not least” part of that otherwise clichéd statement holds unique weight in this case, since this year’s docs are unquestionably the best of the short film categories this year. Easily the most diverse of this year’s Oscar categories, charting stories from four different continents, each of these powerful documentaries are linked in their keen focus on humanity – its necessities, its evils, its tragedies, and its ever-so-small joys.
In alphabetical order:
Body Team 12
A film that tells an important story in an oddly abbreviated manner. “Body Team 12” refers to a unit in Liberia tasked with collecting the bodies of deceased Ebola victims. Director David Darg provides us with a first-person perspective on a deadly outbreak, and the images are truly sobering. These people perform the necessary task of staring this vicious disease in the face and clearing the wreckage, and yet they put themselves at constant risk and are viewed as potentially deadly themselves. The content is important and revelatory, yet the film feels incomplete, as if it needed to be expanded to fully realize itself. Health concerns obviously limit a filmmaker’s capacity to fully explore this terrain, but there is a feature-length version of Body Team 12 that could be brilliant. In its current state, however, the film is powerful in content but truncated in presentation.
Chau, beyond the lines
A film of tremendous humanity that reminds us just how resilient and powerful the human spirit can be. We meet Chau at a camp for disabled children in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He was born with disabilities resulting from exposure to Agent Orange, one of the many chemicals sprayed over the forests of Vietnam by American soldiers during the war. Life at the camp is far from ideal – living conditions are rough and the camp nurses are often cold and uncaring – and yet these kids play, joke, and fight just like any other kids at any other camp or school. Chau’s lifelong dream is to become an artist – specifically, to become a clothing designer. His journey to turn that dream into a reality is the focus of Courtney Marsh’s film, which is sneaky in the way it becomes an epic on an intimate scale, following Chau over years of ebbs and flows in his quest. He’s a very talented artist and an inspirational soul, and his story is a true marvel.
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Director Adam Benzine accomplishes something absolutely revelatory with his portrait of legendary French filmmaker Lanzmann, who in 1985 gave us Shoah, that staggering recounting of the Holocaust. Now age 90, Lanzmann provides his perspective on the enormity of that undertaking, both from a physical and emotional perspective. Spectres of the Shoah provides insight into Lanzmann’s methods, how he approached his subject, how he found a way into the souls of the survivors, how he tricked the Nazis into appearing in the film, and how he became inextricably immersed in the tragedy. Remarkably, the film demonstrates how the residual pain comes full circle, as Lanzmann recoils from certain memories with the same horror as that of his own subjects. Lanzmann’s willingness to bare his soul results in something truly powerful and resonant for viewers: those who have already experienced Shoah have that experience deepened, and those who have never seen it emerge fully understanding its power.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Saba is a rare survivor of a Pakistani religious custom on a horrific rise. Each year, an estimated 1,000 women are murdered in Pakistan by members of their own family for violating a fictitious religious code. In Saba’s case, she fell in love and married a man who was deemed unsuitable for her family’s status, and as a result her father and uncle kidnapped her, took her to a desolate river, shot her in the face, and left her to die. Remarkably, she survives to take a stand against this shockingly inhumane practice, but the oppressive, controlling forces of familial “town councils” threaten to reverse the natural flow of legal justice. Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy confronts this staggering scenario with an unflinching directness similar to Joshua Oppenheimer’s works, but mines thematic strands of injustice that bear resemblance to uniquely American films like Spotlight or The Hunting Ground. So we see that the beast reaches across the globe to strangle us all.
Last Day of Freedom
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s film consists of a single interview with Bill Babbitt, recounting decades of life and experience with his brother Manny, from the time they were children to Manny’s two tours of duty as a Marine in Vietnam, to the tragedy that resulted when he returned home. Babbitt’s first-person recounting fuses with rotoscope animation to bring the story to vivid life, turning what could’ve been a drab talking-head piece into an immersive visual experience. Manny came back from Vietnam with severe mental wounds. When Bill discovers that those wounds have led Manny to commit a heinous crime, he gives his brother up to authorities, and what follows is a tragic tale of mental illness, a recognition of a broken criminal justice system, and an impassioned plea for humanity.
Thinking about which films can contend for the win, I could honestly imagine winning scenarios for each of them. Spectres of the Shoah has been a favorite among pundit predictions since the nominations were announced, and for good reason. It revisits one of the cinema’s most powerful historical documents to give us a new perspective on one of humanity’s greatest tragedies, as well as the enormous weight of the filmmaking process itself. And yet there are other very-deserving winners, most notably A Girl in the River, which is a stunning portrait of hopeful female empowerment peering through the otherwise opaque tyranny of cultural disaster. Chau’s story is warm and inspirational. Last Day of Freedom speaks to the weight of guilt and injustice on our home soil. And even if I didn’t ultimately find Body Team 12 to be entirely successful, what it shows us is stunning. No more dense group of quality nominees exists on this year’s roster.