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2017 Oscar-nominated Shorts: DOCUMENTARY

February 17, 2017



All five of these nominees gave me a lump in my throat and some even produced some major waterworks. That’s no surprise in the Documentary Short category, since recent years have elicited a similar response, proving that this category typically provides the most rewarding rewarding viewing experience out if all the nominees. Of the five nominees this year, three of them focus on the Syrian civil war and the plight of the refugees. The other two may be polar opposites, one dealing with the end of life and the other connecting and renewing lives, but they nevertheless are touching portraits of humanity. Every one of these shorts could’ve been expanded to feature-length documentaries. Regardless of length, I’m grateful these eye-opening docs are out there. 

Who do I think should take home the gold? That’s a tough one, since I really like all of them, but if pressed, there are two that I’d wager on. With its seasoned team and political relevance, “The White Helmets” could take it, but a win for “Joe’s Violin,” with its intergenerational/interracial friendship, would also send a wonderful relevant message as well.

That being said, I wish these shorts were made available to a wider audience (something I feel every year), instead of just a short run at an independent theater. You can usually find some of them online if you look hard enough, but they’re definitely not being marketed once they receive Oscar nominations like they should. At least this year two of the shorts, “Extremis” and “The White Helmets” are streaming on Netflix and if you want to catch “Joe’s Violin”, check it out here.

This weekend, in Chicago you can check out these documentary shorts at the Music Box Theatre, where there are showing them in two parts – Program A (4.1 Miles, Extremis & Joe’s Violin) and Program B (The White Helmets and Watani: My Homeland) – click on the link to purchase tickets.

Below are my thoughts on each nominee….






Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel, the British producer/director team behind “Virunga”, the 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary feature, find themselves nominated again with a timely look at a group of courageous volunteers in Aleppo called The White Helmets, otherwise known as the Syrian Civil Defense. They are the first responders in a city ravaged by bombs that drop out of the sky from Russian planes or attacks from ISIS – basically the equivalent of tornado chasers – only their mission here is to save lives, with the motto, “To save a life is to save all of humanity”. Well aware that each attempt at saving a life could put their own at risk, they press on. von Eisnsiedel follows them into dust-filled wreckage and into Turkey where they spend a month training for their job, while inserting moving one-on-one individual interviews that draw viewers closer to who these unbelievable brave and compassionate men are. They are fathers, sons and brothers, who want to protect their family and their community, which makes this necessary viewing to combat Syrian stereotypes. It’s too bad one of the group’s leaders won’t be able to make it on Oscar night due to a certain travel ban.

RATING: ****





4.1 MILES – Greece (21 min.)

Here’s a short that could be an appropriate follow-up to “Fire at Sea” an Oscar-nominated film for Best Documentary Feature. Like that film, “4.1 Miles” is also a harrowing look at the Syrian refugee crisis. specifically through the eyes of coast guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who finds himself struggling to assist and keep alive those who are seeking safety and a life free from terror. With limited resources, he leads a crew off the coast of Turkey daily (it’s 4.1 miles to the Greek island of Lesbos, hence the title) with the goal of providing safe passage to boatloads of refugees. Filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki doesn’t hold back here, which is evident when we see a small child, limply hanging by her feet, naked, as three women slap her back to get the water out of her lungs, before they announce she is breathing and wrap her in a blanket. Some children aren’t that lucky. The camera also stops on the motionless bo dies of two children who had been fished from the cold waters, as Papadopoulos performs CPR, angrily looking on at the ambulance that took too long to arrive. It’s heartbreaking. This is another subject that’s timely and needs to be seen, to inform and enlighten.

RATING: ***1/2





WATANI: MY HOMELAND – (UK/Germany/Syria) 39 min.

It’s incredible that Berlin-based director Marcel Mettelsiefen and producer Stephen Ellis had access to the Kamil family for three years. The former doctor-turned photojournalist made over 25 trips to visit the Syria family of six and followed them as they embarked on their epic journey from war-torn Aleppo to their attempt to make a new life in Germany. We get to know the children – Hammoudi, Helen, Farah and Sara, the young children of Free Syrian Army Commander Abu Ali and his wife/their mother, Hala. The soundtrack of their during the civil war is of bomb-dropping planes that fly above and cacophonous artillery fire on the ground. Abu Ali’s duties keep them there, making them the only family still living in a derelict war zone that was once a busy residential neighborhood. When he is captured by ISIS, Hala decides to leave their homeland with their four children and start a new life in a small town in Germany. Mettelsiefen captures the range of the family’s emotions, from fear to confusion and excitement to sadness, as they  struggle to adapt to a new life, holding on to hope, and the idea of belonging to a homeland they’re unsure if they can ever return to. Having already directed two features on the Syrian Civil War for PBS: “Syria: Children on the Frontline,” and “Children on the Frontline: The Escape,” Mettelsiefen is clearly passionate about the subject matter here. Through his eye-opening, thoughtful approach we’re able to discard stereotypes and misconceptions we may have toward Syrians, by connecting with this one family. It’s yet another necessary and timely short. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Hala on Oscar night.

RATING: ****






EXTREMIS – (USA) 24 min.

“Extremis” leaves you with quite a bit to think about long after viewing. The subject it covers probably isn’t something we like to think about a whole lot, but we all have to face at some point.  Accomplished documentary feature cinematographer, Dan Krauss directs this short which tackles the difficult subject of end-of-life care, earning his second Oscar nomination in this category, after “The Death of Kevin Carter”, his short from 2006. Krauss follows Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, a palliative care doctor at an Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital, located in Oakland, California, as she guides her patients, their loved ones (and, in turn, herself) though difficult, near-impossible decisions. In a short amount of time, we connect with patients who are unable to survive without the assistance of breathing machines and have to make the decision with their family whether or not to continue with such care. We are witness to uncomfortable conversations and challenging realizations as the doctor navigates her patients, their families and her own emotional involvement.  Nothing is easy about any of it. There are different reactions that come with making these difficult decisions – one tender brother dotes over his ailing sister, telling her the possible outcome of each decision as she silently nods, while one daughter in denial believes that her mother’s heartbeat tells her that she still wants to remain alive for her, even if it is on a breathing tube. Through it all, Zitter is a vessel of empathy, impressively firm and sensitive, never pushing the family members one way or another. If this were a feature-length doc, I would’ve definitely wanted to see some background on Zitter and how she manages and copes with such an emotionally challenging job. “Extremis” is unforgettable and a genuinely moving short that will resonate with many.

RATING: ***1/2





JOE’S VIOLIN – (USA) 24 min.

The sweetest of all the nominees in this category comes from director Kahane Cooperman, who delivers an endearing and uplifting story that reinforces the power of human connection and the healing power of music. The touching story of “Joe’s Violin” covers the unlikely friendship formed between a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingolf and the 12-year-old Brianna Perez (a student at Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls) who receives his beloved violin after he donates it to an instrument drive he heard on WQXR radio.  A single sentence Joseph wrote on the donation slip pertaining to his past caught the attention of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation that ran the drive and they specially chose Brianna’s school to receive the violin. The girl is a delight, who transforms when she plays the instrument and seeing her and Joseph meet for the first time is enough to put a lump in your throat and then some. The film spends some time reflecting on Joseph’s past experience in a Siberian concentration camp during WWII and how he procured the violin, while also providing some background on Brianna and her family as well. Cooperman, a producer on “The Daily Show” for nearly two decades, produced the film with DOC NYC Executive Director, Raphaela Neihausen (with some Kickstarter) and it winds up being the kind of story you will be glad you found and whelmed that such a momentous act and encounter came from simply giving away an instrument. Brianna and Joseph are the unlikeliest of pairs and what’s so heartening about this short is how it sheds like on something good happening in the world.

RATING: ****




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