2016 Oscar-nominated Shorts: DOCUMENTARY review
Of all the nominated Shorts, the documentary category is usually the one where I’m left wanting more. In terms of time, not quality. In the past, these shorts have proven to be contain some of the most eye-opening and fascinating, often leaving me wishing they would be given the full-length treatment. Three of these shorts are produced by HBO Films and will show up on the cable channel very soon – “Body Team 12” and “A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” will air in March and “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” will air in May. All of them are great and will leave viewers frustrated, educated, sobered and heartbroken – but most of all connected to compelling stories of humanity at its best and worst.
CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES (2015)
directed by: Courtney Marsh
Courtney Marsh’s documentary is a straightforward look at a young man, whose physical limitations have not limited his confidence and creativity. He lives at Lang Hao Binh Agent Orange Camp in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with other children born with physical ailments from their parents exposure to Agent Orange. At no point do we see Chau wallow in self-pity, but rather a peacemaker among his peers, with a desire to one day become a professional artist and clothing designer. Obviously, the subject of the ravaging effects of the chemicals the U.S. used on Vietnam is both frustrating and heartbreaking to watch, but it’s also quite encouraging to see these orphaned children cared for and form a familial bond amongst each other.
BODY TEAM 12 (2015)
directed by: David Darg
Body Team 12 is the name of a certain Liberian Red Cross group that visits villages and retrieves and disposes of dead bodies of the Ebola outbreak. In this team, there is only one female – a nurse named Garmai Sumo, who is the first to inspect a body amid the emotional (and sometimes volatile) family and friends. Director David Darg primarily shadows her at work, where Garami and her co-workers wear protective suits, gloves and goggles that are sealed with packing tape to protect themselves from the deadly diseases. It’s a moving look at a challenging and thankless job that encounters loss and grief daily. Garmai is also a mother, who feels she is doing something beneficial to build a future for her son and her country. If only the short was longer to touch on other aspects of her work.
CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH (2015)
directed by: Adam Benzine
French director Claude Lanzmann’s nearly ten-hour “Shoah” from 1985 about the Holocaust took fifteen years to make and compiled of over 350 hours of film. It consists of testimonies by selected survivors, witnesses, and German perpetrators, often secretly recorded using hidden cameras. Now imagine what it took to make such a documentary – the toll on one emotionally and mentally. In Adam Benzine’s “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”, the director himself discusses the challenges during production – how he got into an altercation while interviewing a former SS officer, how he got arrested and almost died in the editing process. Benzine’s short isn’t all love for Lanzmann. There are filmmaking peers of the director’s who express Lanzmann’s megalomaniacal tendencies. That’s understandable for someone taking on such a Herculean project. With previously unreleased footage of the actual documentary, this short is not only a fascinating tale of ambition, it’s also a fine companion piece.
A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS (2015)
directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
The most disturbing and frustrating nominated short is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s short – one of three films she released last year – which tells the unbelievable story of Saba Maqsood, a Pakistani girl, who at eighteen years-old was beaten, shot in the face, stuffed in a bag and dumped in a river to die, by her father and uncle in their attempt at an ‘honor killing’, executed when a parent is disrespected in some way. Let that sink in. She miraculously survived and has bravely told her story. These honor killings can be dismissed in court when the accuser/victim forgives their attackers, which is what the village elders pressure Saba to do, much to the chagrin of her pro bono lawyer and local investigators. It’s a complex short that focuses on the scarred girl’s struggle with forgiveness and also offers the perspectives of her attackers as well. It’s horrible that such acts are a trend in Pakistan, but it’s also important and courageous for Saba to come forward and courageously tell her story.
LAST DAY OF FREEDOM (2015)
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s short is also about forgiveness as well as regret and how the United States legal system failed a purple heart awarded Vietnam veteran named Manny Bobbitt, who suffered from PTSD and was left homeless. His story is told by his grief-stricken brother, Bill Bobbitt, who recounts his childhood with Manny, the effects of the way on his brother and the events that led to him receiving the death penalty. It’s the most heartbreaking and indicting of the shorts, told in a uniquely animated approach, using rotoscope and drawings to portray re-enactment flashbacks. Although what happened to Manny was tragic, “Last Day of Freedom” serves to remind us the loved ones left behind suffer long after death – especially one that could’ve been prevented.
I’d be alright with any of these fine documentary shorts winning come Oscar night. If I had to vote right now, I’d select “Girl in the River” for its fine production and riveting subject matter.
For more information on the Short Film Programs and where they will be screened, please visit the Oscar shorts site.