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Short Stuff: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/05/18 01:37:34

It's a perennial observation, but there's probably no other category in the Academy Awards whose definition dictates the form of the film that gets made, as three of the five nominees are within a minute or two of the maximum length of a short film, leading one to wonder how many of them were cut down from something not quite feature-length and how many arrived at that length and pace naturally.

That all of these shorts have likely been edited to qualify as well as work as films is interesting in that about half of them are leap-of-faith documentaries, so to speak - records of events where the filmmakers came into a situation that, though interesting, had to play out. Documentaries of any length can be like that - how many times have filmmakers not known whether they would have a short, a feature, or something that just doesn't come together when starting?

To a certain extent, director Kate Davis probably knew she had something with "Traffic Stop"; there was likely an active investigation going on even when she started filming. The fact that the wheels of justice can turn slowly at times likely put bounds on how much of the story of Brealion King she could tell; though the audience gets to see the shocking beginning as Ms. King is pulled aside by a traffic cop in Austin, TX and dealt with quite harshly for what is basically a speeding ticket, her civil suit could take years to play out, even if Davis came to the story with things already well underway.

She is able to make that a strength. While the opening scene of this film, taken from the dashcam footage of the office who arrested her, is shocking and visceral, Davis is able to shift the audience's perspective on the film by dedicating a solid chunk of time after that to getting to know King, letting the audience see her as an elementary school teacher, a dancer, and someone who has survived a tough start in life to excel in other ways The incident that gives the film its title may be a major event in her life, but the audience can quickly see that it is not the defining one. It's an impressive balancing act that King manages as director and editor here, as she makes the film about King as a person even as she eventually returns to the incident, giving it more time and some more prominence. It's eventually integrated fully into the film, not so much as its skeleton, but something that must inevitably be part of King's life, a visceral reminder of what she, as an African-American woman, cannot take for granted as she may have done before.

It is, as such, inevitably not neat, and some will likely raise eyebrows at how, if Davis ever tried to follow the story from any perspective other than King's, it doesn't 'make the final cut. But perhaps that's for the best, if the point is uncertainty, and how it can eventually make its way into an otherwise confident person's make-up.

By contrast, it seems likely that filmmaker Laura Checkoway probably started "Edith+Eddie" knowing that there was a certain amount of risk involved, what with the two subjects of the film being in their mid-nineties even if they are also newlyweds, but maybe not quite seeing that a narrative would develop, as two daughters of 96-year-old Edith clash over her desire to stay in the family home with Eddie, despite her age, relative frailty, and slight dementia. It's a story that feels like it developed before Checkoway's eyes despite what might simply have been a desire to tell the sweet story of two elders who found love despite their age and different ethnicities.

It makes for some interesting situations where access is concerned, as she is able to be on the scene when certain confrontations happen and is able to talk extensively with some members of Edith's family while others - as well as the legal guardian assigned to her - stay away, seemingly unwilling to talk with someone they see as an adversary. There are other notable absences as well - that 95-year-old Eddie seems alone in the world is something the filmmakers never explore on-screen, even if it is interesting that his daughter-in-law seems to be the only person to visit him in the hospital when he is ill. It's a subtext that potentially colors every aspect of Eddie's relationship with Edith and her family, and maybe it's better that the audience is left to ponder that rather than having it all explained.

Whether the conflict over Edith's future was discovered or part of the original brief, the way Checkoway tells the tale evokes the right feelings, a heady mix of the joy that the pair's love brings them and the loneliness and difficulty of age and how it requires pressing on even as body and mind slow down. It never looks easy to be these two, but it at least looks happier as long as they have each other.

Sometimes, a documentarian finds a great subject or topic and the film makes itself, with the filmmaker having to choose the best bits; other times, as I suspect is the case with Frank Stiefel's "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405", it takes a great deal of effort to make it seem that way. Artist Mindy Alper is fascinating, but it must have been tremendously difficult to find the right material with which to present her.

Mindy, after all, has a lot misfiring in her head, and her handicap is the audience's first impression of her, with Stiefel saving the fact that she is a tremendously talented artist for a little bit later, introducing it almost off-handedly, as she starts sketching while doing something else and her lines start forming something interesting beyond just being good draftsmanship. From there, Stiefel starts interspersing the story of Mindy's personal history with more looks at her art, and one gets the sense afterward that he and editor Ting Poo have cut things to very deliberate effect, building up her expressiveness as an artist in a way that is parallel to her difficulties communicating but separate from it. This isn't the story of a savant whose talent is compensation for a handicap or Mindy finding an alternate way to connect; it's the seeming paradox of the thing that gives her story its power.

The filmmakers use both sides of that coin to make something hypnotic. Much of the film is spent talking to Mind directly, and that footage is carefully cut so that the audience can get accustomed to the odd rhythms and quirks of her speech without making it seem like a code or overly simplistic, while her art is occasionally animated to keep the film dynamic without letting the animator's work overpower hers. Stiefel seldom pairs Mindy with other people, which both prevents her from seeming less than them as they talk while also emphasizing just how much she has to plug away on her own. It's sometimes a sadder result than the audience might hope for - one would like to see her and her mother reconnect, for instance - but one that will almost certainly leave a viewer fascinated by this woman who seems to find peace amid trauma just as she can express herself artistically even if verbalization can be difficult.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon's "Heroin(e)" should likely be pluralized somehow - she builds the film around three women working to deal with the opioid crisis in Huntington, West Virginia - but the English language isn't really built for that to work. It's an admirably no-nonsense look at the situation in the present tense, only tangentially concerned with how opioid addiction became so widespread, why Huntington has an overdose ten times the national average, and what can be done in the future, but far from detached or heartless.

If there's one singular heroine to the story, it's Jan Rader, deputy chief of the local fire department who tirelessly shows up at the scene, does what she and her department can to save a life, and often moves on to the next call directly. Two other women get a similar amount of screen time time - County Drug Court judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman, whose "Brown Bag Ministry" delivers lunches with biblical tracts to the local prostitutes - and viewers will likely be impressed with them in the same way: They are compassionate, but firm, none seemingly terribly interested in punishment. Sheldon highlights that they are attacking the problem from different angles, but it's hard to ignore that Rader is the most active and the most likely to both talk about her stance and be shown acting. Freeman explains herself quite clearly, but she's not necessarily shown getting results; Keller does the work but seldom addresses the camera; instead spending her time on the bench.

And for all that Rader's segments of the movie are carefully pieced together to illustrate that it's both necessary and possible to be motivated by hope and pragmatism simultaneously (and quietly making an argument that there are no acceptable losses), it's Keller's drug court that perhaps might merit the deeper dive: Those scenes play like a combination of parole hearing, school, and rehab, and I find myself curious how it works beyond the glimpses given. Still, a short needs focus, and spending time on the attitude that these women bring to bear rather than all of the details makes the film's point without getting bogged down in details

The last film on the compilation program (though with the documentaries often split in two, it's not unusual to see them "out of order", Thomas Lennon's "Knife Skills" makes an enjoyable finale. It offers up a neat situation - the opening of a French restaurant in Cleveland that would be staffed by those recently released from prison who likely had no experience with the business (and as such also served as a culinary school). It's a story that would probably make a good dramatic feature, but works in this format as well.

It does occasionally bump up against the forty-minute wall a bit more than the other films in the package, giving the most time to the restaurant's founder, Brandon, although that may be as much about ease of access as anything. Because the restaurant business and life after incarceration is difficult, some of the other people Lennon follows will drop out, and others reach turning points off-screen, and the result is a story that sometimes feels a bit incomplete, with Brandon's stability and availability the most complete arc to fit into a limited time. That's no knock; it's clear from the start that he's got more going on than simple philanthropy, and Lennon builds a fine film around him, even if it's the employees who have the potentially more transformational story.


It's a solid collection all around. My choice for the award tonight would be "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405", and it's also the way I'd bet; as much as the whole group is interesting, that one's arresting, grabbing one's attention in the way few films of any length do.

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