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2023 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts (review)

March 8, 2023


Although each year I always hope that the Animated Shorts category winds up being the best of the three Oscar Shorts, historically it’s been the Documentary Shorts which become the overall most memorable. That didn’t happen with this year’s batch, but there are at least three here that standout amid the five nominees for the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts. Still, out of the three Shorts categories, this is the category that’s probably the easiest to view since two of these documentary shorts are available on Netflix. That being said, there’s really nothing better than sitting through all five nominees in a movie there, which can currently be done in these select theaters.

That being said, before ShortsTV would roll out all the Oscar-Nominated Shorts for a (ahem) short theatrical release in the weeks leading up to the Oscar telecast, the Documentary Shorts were especially hard to track down.
But over time, with the streaming climate increasing at a voracious rate, documentary shorts have become more available. It’s not just streaming giants like Netflix funding these shorts, but also reputable news outlets such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. It certainly helps to have such backing and it makes sense for documentaries that revolve around hard-hitting journalism.

Typically, the nominees in the Documentary Short category are indeed more hard-hitting than the five we see this year. It’s fine to have lighter, more accessible fare here, but it’s just kind of odd. On the flipside, maybe these nominees are something of a reprieve for all the exhausting and relentless 24/7 online coverage of life at its worst. I’m certainly not opposed to seeing a spotlight on more inspiring true stories.

Below are my thoughts on each of this year’s Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, in the order of weakest to greatest. For a change, it wasn’t all that hard to place them in such an order…


(40 min.)

Released on Netflix last June, “The Martha Mitchell Effect” sets out to shine a light on Martha Mitchell, who was one of the most notorious outspoken figures of the 1970s – that is until her death in 1976. She was instrumental in divulging information involving the Watergate scandal, earning her a whistleblower status. As the wife of President Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney General John Mitchell, she was privy to more information than the Nixon administration would’ve liked, which is why she was gaslit by Tricky Dick – who can be heard in a recording saying she is to blame for Watergate – in order to keep her silent and slander her name. Using a ton of comprehensive archival footage, directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, unveil the rise and fall of Mitchell’s popularity, gleaning from her interviews and talk show appearances that her outspoken boldness was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Somehow though, it’s hard to stay interested in the short and that may be because it is so short. Such subject matter could benefit from stretching it out to a feature length documentary and possible including more people who knew her, in order to flesh her out more as a person.



(39 min.)

Indian documentary filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves makes her debut with “The Elephant Whisperers”, so to have it earn an Oscar nomination is in and of itself quite an accomplishment. Released on Netflix last December, the feel-good short is set in the Mudmalai National Park in South India, and follows an indigenous couple named Bomman and Belli, who take it upon themselves to care for an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu. From its fragile youth, the couple nurture and care for the playful and loyal creature, as it grows into a healthy juvenile. Gonsalves spent five years following the couple and the detailed footage backs that up, as we see an obvious bond between humans and elephants. The short makes the most of the location, utilizing drones to capture the dense greenery and grand landscape these protected elephants are allowed to thrive in. It all feels like it could’ve been shot by National Geographic and that’s impressive for a first time filmmaker. This is one of those docs that have two rare things going for it: the runtime is just enough and it happens to be appropriate for viewers of all ages.



(29 min.)

Released last September on YouTube, “Stranger at the Gate” will definitely subvert viewer expectations – that is, if they go in knowing absolutely nothing about the subject matter. One would expect things to go quite south, but as more is revealed the short takes on quite an surprising tone. Award-winning director Joshua Seftel (who’s made documentaries since the early 90s, worked on television series, and even helmed the feature “War, Inc.” a 2008 political action comedy) focuses those who attend an Islamic mosque community center in Muncie, Indiana, and a local former Marine who came home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with a brewing case of PTSD coupled with Islamaphobia. Richard “Mac” McKinney gradually developed secret plans to bomb the mosque, but that didn’t happen and essentially Seftel’s documentary is about how and why that tragedy was averted. Seftel places the players in the story like chess pieces on a board and although we think we know where its going, his candid delivery winds up being a thought-provoking account that finds violence and hate calmed by grace and kindness.



(29 min.)

I’m not an Oscar historian by any means, but I can’t recall a time when a documentary shorts director has been nominated consecutively in this category, but congrats goes to filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. His short, “When We Were Bullies” was nominated last year in this category and now he’s back with a very personal short. “How Do You Measure a Year?” finds Rosenblatt filming one subject in one room over a period of 16 years. Starting at age 2, Rosenblatt films interviews of his daughter, Ella, on her birthday, asking her the same questions each year, like how she would describe herself and what her definition of power is. Many of the answers are humorous, especially at an early age and then as Ella enters her teen years (from surly to mature), her answers and behavior varies each year. Although we hear Rosenblatt off-camera asking questions, the focus is solely on Ella (with a brief appearance by her mother) and inevitably it’s a fascinating and heartwarming look at time and growth, and a reminder for parents at how fleeting both are. Overall, it remains a little fuzzy why he’s doing this since it feels like a collage of video clips that would only be seen by his family. I suppose it depends on the viewer. As a father of a girl, I was reminded that the time we give our children our attention and love will eventually be remembered and treasured, which can be seen as Rosenblatt’s short concludes.



(25 min.)

“Haulout” is by far the most transfixing of all the nominees in this category. Its camerawork is impressive and the cold and desolate setting is simply stunning. The short was shot in a remote region of Eastern Russia, where the brother and sister duo of Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva observe Russian scientist Maxim Chakilev, who observes the life of walruses at Cape Heart-Stone in the Chukchi Sea. Not only did the siblings direct “Haulout”, they also wrote, produced, and lensed the short during an entire field season in 2020 (from mid-August to early November). This particular area is a popular resting spot for migrating animals, especially during rising temperatures in the Arctic which finds ice melting. At one point approximately 90,000 walruses crowd the entire shore, surrounding the shack Chakilev stays at, where Maxim and Evgenia are filming. It becomes a constant cacophony of bellowing as walruses pile on top of each other, often clashing tusks and a certain sense of anxiety and concern can be felt. With such striking visuals and a short time frame, “Haulout” doesn’t bother with narration or any detailed dialogue. What we see is a poignant look at the impact of climate change and that’s communicated in an unforgettable manner.

RATING: ****



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