Short Stuff: The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts
By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/03/16 11:56:52
So, by the time I finish writing this, the award will have been awarded. That's just how the schedule worked out here this year, but so what? Considering the material they cover, and how little other exposure they get, it's well worth being reminded that these short films exist, and that receiving these nominations gives them a bit more of a chance to be seen.
America seemed to lose its collective mind over Ebola a year or two ago, and then, when it didn't prove to be the national disaster people thought. It's a real, ongoing issue in Liberia, though, and "Body Team 12" is a fine, ground-level look at the people who do the final work of collecting the bodies of the dead.
Director David Darg mostly follows Garmai Sumo, a single mother working for the Red Cross and the only woman on her Monrovia-based team. She's a personable narrator, empathetic but business-like when discussing the sobering work the team does and how it clashes with the need of the victims' families to grieve, but lively away from the job, giving the audience implicit hope that though this is a crisis, it's a surmountable one. Darg is careful to make sure this comes from Sumo naturally and without exaggeration, just as he is not particularly keen to point out just how underfunded and improvised this group is, though it's hard to miss that they're carrying bodies away in pickup tricks and re-using things that first-world countries would consider disposable even if nobody specifically mentions it.
"Body Team 12" is the shortest of the nominated films, thirteen minutes while the others all male use of close to the full forty that the category allows. That is a badge Darg should wear with honor, as his film is streamlined while still being informative, and doesn't try to force a narrative that distorts what he is trying to say. More easily-digested sort documentaries with clarity would be a welcome trend.
It's been some time since a documentary made me seethe with anger the way "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" did. I knew enough about the subject matter to be sure that anger was coming - it tells the story of Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old woman who nearly fell victim to one of the over 1,000 "honor killings" that happen in Pakistan annually but managed to survive multiple bullet wounds (including one to the face) and being thrown in the river - but the kicker, that the community would pressure her to forgive the father and uncle who did it, was where the real rage showed up.
Showing something awful doesn't always provoke rage and rage itself isn't enough for a movie to be considered great, even in the documentary category, but director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a great storyteller. From the very start, when Saba describes only meeting her husband through a few exchanged letters, she regularly builds her film in a way that gives those not familiar with Pakistani culture chances to be surprised and thus more engaged in learning about it but doesn't require that reaction to work. She (and editor Geof Bartz) also display a skill that is often crucial to making a good documentary but which is all too often unappreciated - they are able to work around material that they don't have, from the capture of Saba's attackers to what happens in a closed courtroom. It's good stuff to start with, but Obaid-Chinoyputs it together near-perfectly.
Much of what Obaid-Chinoy is able to do with this story would be for naught without Saba herself, of course, and she's a strong anchor for the film even when her injuries may make the audience want to look away. She's not the film's only compelling voice - the supportive detective and pro bono lawyer are important for showing that there is a solid cadre of people in Pakistan who want change, which re-frames the narrative somewhat - but her level presence on screen reminds the audience of what she went through to survive that night without framing her as strictly a victim or activist. It makes the latter moments perhaps less rawly emotional than they could be had Obaid-Chinoy taken a more strident tack - it's more deflating than crushing when things start lining up against her quest for justice - but it also allows the film to display the state of the struggle: Difficult, with a lot stacked against it, but hopefully moving in the right direction.
It's interesting that the nominations and the choices made in assembling the nominees as a package put "A Girl in the River" right next to "Last Day of Freedom" - the righteous anger of the first serve as a direct contrast to the other's pleas for mercy and understanding. Dig a little and there is some common ground, though mainly in the broadest terms. This one, after all, tells a different story from a different direction, as narrator Bill Babbitt recounts the life of his brother Manny, teaching the gaps in and our of Manny's control that would eventually lead to his execution for murder.
"Animated documentary" sounds like an oxymoron, but filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman are able to use it to get at the truth of the story Bill tells in ways traditional documentaries can't: They can show events for which no footage exists (or emphasize elements that were not central to what images there may be), or revisit locations as they were as opposed to add they are now. It allows them to build the entire half-hour film around Bill's monologue without it feeling static - not only is the style they use a bit jumpy, but his lines can become something else without a cut or a less natural-seeming visual effect. And while the fact that the Babbitts are black is at times important, it never becomes their first trait as it so often does in contemporary stories of crime and punishment, helping to give the other factors more weight.
The animation is the most obvious thing that sets this sort apart, but it would do the film a disservice to treat it as the only tool Talisman & Hibbert-Jones have in their arsenal. The animation makes it a little more difficult to see how much of Bill's story just came out in a stream of consciousness and how much was prompted in an interview and later pieced together through editing, but the the of them do well to allow a little rambling - that's how memory works - but always get back to the main thread. They do an excellent job of relating their tale's events clearly enough to reach certain conclusions, but leaving room for a little equivocation and uncertainty. Perhaps most impressively, the filmmakers wind up moving in the opposite direction as many documentarians - though it initially seems like Bill is going to be talking about the death penalty, their film soon grows into a story of multiple connected issues, but of individual people more than anything else.
In another interesting juxtaposition (if you see what was broken up into two programs here back-to-back), both that short and "Chau, Beyond the Lines" (aka "War Within the Walls") deal with the fallout of the Vietnam War. Filmmaker Courtney March's subject initially doesn't appear to belong in Ho Chi Minh City's Lang Hao Binh Agent Orange Care Center where he has lived practically since infancy, as a close-up shows a good-looking teenager's face before other shots reveal his weak, skeletal limbs and knobby knees, and how he drags his right leg when walking in something of a crouched position. He dreams of being an artist and fashion designer, but always falls behind in an annual drawing competition at the War Remnants Museum because he is so weak physically.
Chau is, in fact, in better shape than many at the "camp", and the first act of the film seldom let's the audience forget this - it can't, as it would be difficult to frame a shot there that didn't include a child with missing limbs or an unnerving facial deformity. That Marsh will often allow the camera to linger on them or follow the activity is a shallow thing to complain about, as the world in general could probably stand more reminders of how the effects of these war crimes persist into the present, but it's not always good for the film. It focuses on the circumstances that created Chau's challenges, but not on him, most tellingly when mention is made of him having friction with the nurses but not much sign of what that means on-screen.
And while Marsh perhaps never gives a complete picture of Chau, she keeps returning to him - adding up the gaps mentioned in the film gives something like five or six years - and in that time, something resembling a story develops. It's a thin one, in some ways, but admirably focused; Marsh knew what she was driving for when cutting it, and she builds toward a modest but satisfying conclusion with relatively little bombast. The appealing characterization Chau had from the start solidifies as the audience watches him navigate the world outside the camp, and while there is sometimes a sense that the film puts too upbeat a face on something horrific, its version of Chau's story is nevertheless satisfying.
That sort of focus is something that "Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah" could perhaps have used more of. It feels like a DVD extra, but a making-of documentary for Shoah, a ten-hour film that was in production and the editing room for twelve years, needs something larger than a film which qualifies as a short subject, especially if it has vague ideas about covering the director as well. This needs to be a feature or home in on some specific aspect of its subject.
When director Adam Benzine does concentrate on one aspect - how he got and filed interviews with various subjects, from a barber who survived the camps to a former Nazi - the film does come alive. Lanzmann may be elderly, but he is still sharp, explaining in precise detail why he made certain decisions or recalling incidents that placed him in danger. Those are more compelling moments than when he falls into the art-house French filmmaker pattern of broadly philosophical pronouncements, or when other interviewees like Max Ophuls make comments about Lanzmann having a difficult personality that are not explored at all. When Benzine has to jump around, he has a hard time going into any sort of depth.
Admittedly, my own interest in this particular film is hurt by never having seen Shoah; more than any of the other nominees, this one is almost certainly more illuminating with greater context, and perhaps ill-served by being presented alongside for other films aiming to communicate with a broad audience. It's no crime to target a relatively specific audience if the filmmaker serves them well, but I suspect that anybody who knows Shoah will enough to be interested in this short might prefer something with the room to go into greater depth.
Writing this a few days after the prize had actually been awarded to "A Girl in the River" is a bit unusual and may seem pointless to some, given how articles like this are often presented in terms of handicapping the awards race as much as considering the films themselves. It's actually somewhat freeing to do so, which isn't terribly surprising, reminding one of what Louis CK said when introducing the awards: More than anything else in the Oscars, being highlighted by a win or even a nomination in this category can potentially change someone's life, both for the filmmaker and subject, and they're works that come from a place of incredible passion (nobody is getting rich by following a disabled kids in Ho Chi Minh City for six years!). So, find this package of films wherever you can and give them a look, even if it won't help your Oscar pool at this late date.