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Short Stuff: The 2014 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts
by Jay Seaver

It's a rare year that the shorts categories at the Oscars, especially the documentaries, are less than very strong: There are a lot of filmmakers working at forty minutes or less, and while it's far from easy, the sheer volume means that taking five from the top end is going to yield some good movies, and the nominees from 2014 are no exception.

Still, if you're taking five more or less at random, it's pretty amazing that you get two from Poland that are so heartbreaking in such a complementary way.

The likely front-runner in terms of awards is "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1"; it's not the only one of the five nominees with a worthy subject, but it's the one whose topic is something where people are primed to feel strong emotions without backing away. On top of that, it's a thrilling little film, with director Ellen Gooseberg Kent taking a scenario that doesn't seem inherently cinematic and showing that there's high stakes tension without it feeling exploitative.

That scene is a call center in the state of New York, the only one dedicated to handling social soldiers and veterans, though the rate of such actions among vets far exceeds the average for most other groups. For the most part, Kent opts to show the center's responders in action, taking calls, communicating with an emergency response coordinator by instant message or handwritten note, and then cutting back and forth between those desks as they try to attack the situation from both sides. This plays out several times, in one case from a call that ran for hours, and the professionalism of everybody involved is impressive, especially since it is always clear how draining an experience it is. One of the most memorable images is that of a supervisor making sure that her responder has time to decompress afterward.

Someone watching the film may feel like they need that as well; even the moments when the subjects are doing the usual second-person interviews are more emotional than analytical. It's a heck of a well-done movie.

One of two from Poland in this category, "Joanna" initially looks like it's less about the titular Joanna than her son Johnny, a rambunctious and creative young boy who certainly seems like he could be quite a handful. The camera spends a lot of time on him, only occasionally showing Joanna as a bit more than a voice from the background asking questions so that he can come to conclusions himself, even after what one might suspect from various clues is made plain: She has cancer, and it seems to be part the point where the family is talking about treatment.

For such a traumatic subject, "Joanna" can seem like an oddly detached film; even after all doubt has been removed, the home movies that have been edited into a 40-minute short subject are almost aggressive in not confronting her death sentence directly, and it can take a little while to really appreciate what both Joanna and director Aneta Copacz are trying to do: Spend as much time together as mother and son as possible, doing everything possible to create laying memories, but without being selfishly indulgent. Joanna is trying to be a good mother, even if that means denying things or trying to keep situations normal. It's distancing and not what the viewer wants to see, but there's strength in it.

"Joanna" is not entirely austere; the scene where his parents tell Johnny what is happening is properly devastating, even though it is shot through a window, from a distance, and is thus silent. It's the right choice; as much as this is a scene that the movie needs, the family certainly doesn't need a camera and microphones in the room at that moment. That is in many ways the key to this movie, and the way its subject acts: They are doing what they can to see something without the close attention causing it to happen differently.

Watching feature-length documentary The Overnighters a few weeks ago, I noted that it seemed to start out as an example of how modern capitalism is inhuman before swinging toward a more specific story. "White Earth" spends a little more time in that area, looking at the current oil boom in North Dakota through the eyes of three children - James, brought along by one of the workers and left on his own for most of the day, Allie, a local girl, and Elena, a bright girl in Allie's class - along with Elena's mother Flor, who came north with her husband and has a job cleaning trailers. It's not exactly a look at how they've become a tight-knit community.

But it's not the opposite, either. It is, in fact, a pretty neutral look at the situation, and while it's somewhat interesting to see this through the eyes of children, they are still basically kids, and they don't have much insight or dramatic enough situations that something can be gleaned from what they're saying/doing. It's interesting, but not hefty, while the bits from Flor's perspective seem to cut to what filmmaker Christian Jensen is trying to show more directly.

"The Reaper" is another that is built as much around the unusual way it is put together than the import of its topic; it follows a man who works in a slaughterhouse, with the unenviable job of being the one to actually put the animals down. It follows him closely, with the camera angle often so tight that for the bulk of the film's half-hour running time, it is almost impossible to see Efrain as a whole person; he's a hand here, the brim of a baseball cap there, feet elsewhere, and barely connected to the disembodied voice telling the story of how he has worked there for twenty-five years, being pegged as a "reaper" early on.

It's an interesting conceit, and filmmaker Gabriel Serra does well in how he uses it, eventually pulling back to show a little more of Efrain's life and how he relates to the death in his job. Whether it's really interesting enough is the question. There are moments when it seems like Serra is driving at something, although that final destination seems elusive; others when it seems like the style and dreary backdrop of this place is a means of covering that while Efrain's job is singular, that doesn't mean that there is a whole lot to say about it and how he relates to it. There's interesting craft here, but it doesn't quite linger in the way that seems to be strived for.

In an odd coincidence, while "Joanna" told the tale of a dying woman by mostly focusing on her son, the other Polish film nominated in this category, "Our Curse" focuses on the parents of a baby born with congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (aka "Ondine's Curse"), a disease which keeps him from breathing on his own while he sleeps, and it does not start out optimistically: The couple expects a short, hard struggle, followed by tremendous sadness, and their opening comments - with little Leo in the hospital for so long after birth, wife Magda says she doesn't even feel like she's had a baby - are of a dark, somber mood.

It doesn't get a whole lot more upbeat when Leo finally comes home; the film documents just how much worry and frustration is necessary to keep him alive - could you sleep if you knew that all that stood between your baby and death was a machine that didn't exactly look state of the art? - and the way director Tomasz Sliwinski presents it emphasizes that tension in multiple ways: The repeated shots of him and Magda on the couch show them looking more and more haggard, and when they pick the camera and show what is necessary to actually take care of Leo, it is often all the more stressful for how plainly-done it is (my notes include the phrase "oh, god, he can't cry because of the tracheotomy").

I almost feel like I shouldn't spoil that Sliwinski directed the film, because not knowing that had me much more worried for the couple's marriage than was maybe intended. It does, perhaps, earn the couple some points for bravery - how many of us would be willing to show just how fragile our lives had become? - and the fact that one doesn't learn this until the closing credits shows just how well he and Magda do to avoid seeming exploitative or self-pitying. Sliwinski has made a film that is powerful and personal, but is almost never crass. That Leo is a cutie doesn't hurt either.


Unfortunately, the documentary shorts don't seem to be quite as easily available as the animated and live action packages, although it's worth checking your on-demand package for the films either as a group or individually. If I were casting a vote, it would probably be for "Our Curse", although if I were trying to score points in the office Oscar pool, I would probably write in "Crisis Hotline".


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3751
originally posted: 02/20/15 09:12:10
last updated: 02/20/15 09:18:19
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