Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

The Oscar-nominated documentary short program is an interesting crop of selections this year. Four of the five nominees are simply documents of a particular subject, be it place, character, or family. Only one has what could be construed as having an agenda, or attempting to call attention to an issue and even that example is a restrained portrait of the subject matter.

In White Earth, Christian Jensen goes to a small town in North Dakota where the population has swollen due to recent oil drilling. People are showing up from all over the country hoping for a better life for their families through more work. Rather than focus on the nefariousness of oil companies, or the blight on the land that the drills cause, Jensen talks to the children of oil workers about how they feel about the work, their town, and their future. It’s only twenty minutes, so it doesn’t go deep. The film presents a snapshot of a town and some of its people. The images are occasionally beautiful, scattered though they are throughout. The result is a simple document of family life, parenting, and the desire to see your children have a better life.


Family is a big part of two documentaries centered on illness. In Our Curse, a Polish couple grapple with the challenges of having an infant son with Ondine’s Curse, a congenital affliction that requires a lifetime breathing apparatus during sleep. In Joanna (also in Poland) a young mother with cancer cares for her son Janek, a cute and precocious six-year old who has a very special bond with his mom. Both films are made in the style of a video diary. Tomasz Slivinski, the father, is the filmmaker in Our Curse. His camera captures the everyday drudgery of caring for a sick child as well as late-night conversations between him and his wife where they casually and affectlessly confess their fears.

Joanna feels like it could be a fiction film. There are no on screen dates or info titles to tell us what’s happening or reveal crucial details. The filmmaker Aneta Kopacz catches Joanna and Janek (and sometimes her husband) in intimate moments both outdoors and at home. The narrative gradually reveals the strong relationship and overwhelming love between Joanna and her son so that the impact when they tell Janek that his mother will die (shot silently from outside the house looking in) is great. Neither film has talking head interviews and neither one advocates for the diseases afflicting these families. They are truly and purely films about the bonds and love of family, beautifully rendered.

The most haunting entry is The Reaper (La parka in its original Spanish) by Gabriel Serra about a man in Mexico who works in a slaughterhouse. The film’s title is his nickname at work, earned because of the number of bulls he kills on a daily basis. Again, there’s no agenda here in terms of the cruelty of animal slaughter or the deleterious effects on the human mind. The style reminded me a lot of the documentary Leviathan with its heavy reliance on abstract, almost avant garde compositions that capture partial images. As we peer in at the bull before he’s pulverized, the camera shows only part of his face. At other times the camera sits idly on the side almost as if someone left it accidentally recording and we get the sound effects and ambient noise of the facility without seeing much detail. The effect is to turn the slaughterhouse into a place where human feeling has no place, where people go to do a job without consideration for what they do.

The most affecting of the five nominees and the one I think is most likely to win is Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. At a veterans hospital in upstate New York, a small call center handles all the phone calls made by war veterans seeking help with PTSD, violent and suicidal tendencies, or some combination of all. The film doesn’t deal directly with any veterans. In fact, we never see any of the callers. The subject here is the team working the phones in the call center. Some are veterans themselves, all are trained in mental health, and all are on the front lines of an entirely different battle that we don’t talk enough about in this country. Namely, the cost of war on the young men and women who go oversees to kill, to be killed, and to watch their friends die. Ellen Goosenberg Kent shows us one side of some harrowing phone calls, some of which last an hour or more and most of which have high stakes of life and death. After each call, the responder has a conversation with a supervisor to talk it through. The implication of this work is that these responders can wind up despondent and in need of help themselves. Of the five nominees, this is the one that calls attention to a problem, but it’s dignified. It’s no a call to action, but a brief portrait of some of the most empathetic and caring individuals the American military will have the privilege to talk to if they need to.

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