Sunday, March 20, 2016

2015 Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

Documentarians who make feature-length films have become incredibly savvy when it comes to what makes documentaries sell. Many of them nowadays weave a narrative from the material they gather. What was once a rather dry art form used strictly for information dissemination has now become full-fledged entertainment in many of the same ways fictional films are. They have characters and there’s a plot and story arc. The short-form documentary doesn’t really have the time to do all that so we’re left with a purer form of art, used by filmmakers to call attention to a problem, a hero, an artist, or another work of art that maybe we don’t think about often enough. With the program of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, you get five films that are straight-forward and to the point of their subject matter.

First up is Body Team 12, the shortest of the lot at only twelve minutes. It has little time to do much other than spend a few minutes in the horrors of the job of a team from the Liberian Red Cross whose duties involved collecting the bodies of Ebola victims during the deadly outbreak last year. They gear up with full body coverings, multiple pairs of gloves, and goggles. They go in, take blood samples, and then remove the corpse to a crematorium. One team member follows with an anti-bacterial spray to douse the site where the body was and to rinse his team members’ protective gear as they remove it. The risk of infection is terrifying enough and it’s hard not to conjure memories of the 1995 film Outbreak in which a small breach in the armor led to death. But sometimes the most dangerous part of the job is trying to convince family members to take away their loved ones’ bodies without a burial and gravesite. One group of angry men threaten to burn their car with them inside it. David Darg’s film is a harrowing look at grief that accompanies tragedy and at the unsung heroes who helped avert further spread of the disease as much personal risk to themselves.


A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She won this Oscar four years ago for a film about female victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. This film tackles a similar and in many ways more horrific problem of the barbarous patriarchal society: the honor killing. Her subject is Saba, a woman of nineteen who married a man against her family’s wishes. Her father and uncle drove her to a remote location, shot her in the face, put her in a bag, and dumped her in a river. She survived and made her way to safety, reconstructive surgery, and the relative comfort and safety of her husband and his family – neighbors of Saba’s own. When Saba’s mother and sister are interviewed, they are unsympathetic, believing she got what she deserved. Her father, interviewed from behind bars, believes he did the right thing to bring respect back to himself and his household. Saba’s pro-bono lawyer, a fighter for social justice, illuminates the fact that perpetrators of honor killings can be acquitted if the victim’s family members forgive him. This means that murder is not a crime against the state, but against an individual and their family. Imagine the power of coercion the male members of a family can exert over the females to get their official court-recorded forgiveness statement so they can get away with murder. In Saba’s case, she is not dead, and insists she can never forgive her family as long as she lives. Unfortunately, she lives in a society that favors the wishes of village elders (all male) who prize honor and respect above rational justice. So Saba and her new family are left in the precarious position of doing something they know in their hearts to be wrong, but which will keep the peace. I think it’s important, by way of not thinking of Pakistan as being overrun with this kind of barbarism, to keep in mind that these attitudes and actions are a minority. But that the law allows people to get away with it has led to an increase in these crimes. Three years ago I found Saving Face to be more emotionally moving, but Obaid-Chinoy has given us a pair of films that are essential to bringing awareness to a country in need of humanitarian reform.

The most artistically impressive of the five is Last Day of Freedom. It is an account by one man, Bill Babbitt, of his younger brother Manny’s troubled life that started with difficulties in school, brought him two tours in Vietnam leading to severe PTSD, homelessness, murder, and the death penalty. This is the type of doc that takes on a cause – in this case capital punishment and mental illness. Babbitt states openly at the start that he was at one time fully in favor of the death penalty until it came to visit his family. Co-directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman animated the whole film which affords them the freedom to present images described by Babbitt that we otherwise wouldn’t see. Those images exist only as memories and so they are presented as crude sketches. They are like Babbitt’s half-remembered dreams, images such as Manny at age four or five digging in the clam flats of Cape Cod or of his adult brother playing under some bed sheets made into a fort with his nephews on his last day of freedom before Bill turned him in to the police for the murder of a neighborhood woman. Babbitt’s recounting of his decision to turn Manny in provides a heartbreaking tale, not only because Bill sees his little brother as a broken man, a man helpless without his family, a man whose illness was not yet understood by psychiatrists or society, but because in the name of justice and what’s right, he sent his brother to death row. This is the most powerful, most interesting, and most tightly crafted of the bunch, but it won’t win the Oscar.

Courtney Marsh’s Chau, beyond the lines is about a teenager in Vietnam who dreams of become an artist and clothing designer. What makes his story more than ordinary is his physical affliction, allegedly the result of the use of Agent Orange defoliant during the Vietnam War. The effects of the chemical carry over into genetic birth defects in the children of those exposed. Chau has grown up in a special home for disabled children, many of them Agent Orange victims. Chau likes to draw and every year enters a contest that he never wins. He has taught himself to sketch pretty well considering the very limited use he has of his hands and arms. He is not capable of coloring, so he has another child in his home help him. Marsh filmed over the course of about eight years, catching up with Chau again when he was seventeen and decided to leave the home to return to his parents in the countryside. Unable to achieve much there, he goes to the city and tries to make it as an artist, eventually teaching himself to paint by holding the brush in his mouth. As a profile of a remarkable individual of valiant and undeterred spirit, Marsh’s film is noble. For me, it’s the peripheries in Chau’s life that most intrigue me. What about the effects of Agent Orange on the country as a whole? What about the nurses and caretakers in the group home who seem to have little affection for the children and squash Chau’s dreams at every turn? What about the parents who stole his state-awarded money for victims of Agent Orange? Those details fill out the fabric of Chau’s life and help make a fuller film.

Finally comes Adam Benzine’s Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, about Lanzmann’s process of directing and editing Shoah, his nine hour documentary on the Holocaust. For as much as can be achieved in under forty minutes, Benzine’s film is reasonably impressive. But how much can we really learn about such a daunting process in so little time. This film is the only one that really feels like it needs to be longer. There isn’t enough focused exploration of one particular aspect of the filmmaking, but a somewhat scattershot task that tries to encompass several disparate incidents and ideas, including Lanzmann’s hidden camera exploits to get former Nazi guards to talk (one of which got him hospitalized for a month). If nothing else, Benzine’s film would make a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection’s issue of Shoah.

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