The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts: No Small Stories, by Alexander Miller

10 Feb

The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts begin their theatrical tour today.

Documentaries are a misleading genre; by definition said genre should be the most simple area of interest to investigate, but documentaries are anything but. Let’s forego the obligatory listing of every subgenre and acknowledge that consolidated documentary filmmaking is something of a feat in and of itself, and in concert with the academies proclivity toward “most of” as a qualifier for “best of” there’s a socio-political urgency with every selection and, given the current state of world affairs, a little more insight regarding these curious times.

There are 4.1 miles between the Greek Island Lesbos and the Turkish border. It’s a serene body of water, until 2001 when a boat with 20 Afghani refugees was found crossing it. The influx of incoming expats from neighboring countries has increased to a figure that, by the time of filming, was nearly incalculable. At the start of “4.1 Miles”, one of the coast guard crew recall that “for every hour that goes by, 10 of us are asked to rescue an influx of 200 people [from Turkey].” This team of ten are tasked with the Herculean duty of recovering fleets of refugees, absconding from the Turkish border in overpopulated ramshackle boats. The scale of the expanding refugee crisis is seen through those meager few miles that is the conduit for thousands. The Greek coastguard crew is all there is to manage the neverending torrent of people in dire need of asylum and respite and yet their crew isn’t expanded, their resources limited to a few boats with little to no professional training.

Director Daphne Matziaraki captured the rescue footage from the first day of accompanying captain Papadopoulos and his crew. The days that followed apparently didn’t deviate from the first, and in illustrating what these connecting nations endure and the worn faces of the coastguard their actions are so immediate you don’t ponder their political affiliations or beliefs, it’s a matter of humanity and duty.

The footage is harrowing, to say the least, we tear through these rescue encounters point-blank. One can’t help but note the advantage and compatibility of high definition photography.

Clocking in at 23 minutes, “Extremis” is perhaps the weakest link in this year’s nominated documentary shorts. It observes the doctors and patients that populate the ICU of Oakland’s Highland Hospital and the ethical gray area in dealing with end-of-life care.

At the front, there’s Dr. Zitter, who along with her medical team handle three patients who have reached a crossroads where their lives are at an end. The subject is a divisive and challenging one, and director Dan Krauss takes an observational vantage point, but the issue is pretty clear in each case. Dr. Zitter has the calm and clear conclusion that it’s time to withdraw assistance let the inevitable take shape.

The dilemma of families attempting to reconcile during their dying relatives’ final days is obviously trying, and “Extremis” succeeds in exploring these heart-wrenching decisions, as well as when it’s time for the decision-making to fall into the hands of the individual, their families, or the doctors. Each case feels hopeless, and Dr. Zitter opts for withdrawing care, an arena of ongoing debate and controversy and yet there’s not much outward conflict. There’s plenty internal conflict as we witness individuals agonize life and death decisions, at which point it’s simply human nature that elicits sympathy; not necessarily good directing.

The presence of a camera is likely to influence, inform, or change someone’s behavior, but there’s some awkwardly obvious dialogue from the doctors at certain points, exposition like an introductory speech “Here’s the reality, we’re all going to die…” etc. that feels like a clunkily scripted narrative.

“Joe’s Violin” is notable for its specificity (a dominant force in making successful documentary short), optimistic uniformity, and tonal consistency. In 2014, radio station WQXR announced they were initiating a charity drive where used musical instruments would be donated to various schools. One violin stood out as the ticket/voucher regarding the instruments origins read “I acquired it in 1947 while still a resident in a displaced persons camp in Germany – Holocaust Survivor”. Among the many tools, which are bound to have their own stories, Joe’s violin was one that couldn’t go without attention; this, of course, was the inspiration for the making of the film.

Joe Feingold a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, whose violin was donated and picked by Briana Perez, a 12-year-old student of the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls.

Director Kahane Cooperman shares this particular connection thanks to the universal language of music while we progressively learn more and more about the tragedies that have stricken Joe over the years, and yet his life is sustained by his love of music. Briana’s life story is somewhat dwarfed by Joe’s (by default and by design of the film), but the involvement of the school officials provide some balance and dimension.

The dramatic thrust is the introduction between Joe and Briana, tense but disarmingly emotional. “Joe’s Violin” is a poignant article of human interest that eschews the immensity of the Holocaust and sidesteps overt sentimentality, to emphasize how a love of music can enrich and inspire throughout generations.

“The White Helmets”, named after the Syrian volunteer team who rescue people from airstrike and bombing sites, is a simply realized look at the Syrian conflict. With limited resources and amid the escalating violence in Syria, these individuals give “heroism” a new meaning.

Sadly, The White Helmets seem to be the only responders in these rubble laden cities. While there’s the “speaks for itself” quality that shadows documentaries such as these, it’s inspiring to see an organization with no political affiliation risk their lives to better what’s left of their country and save however many possible. In a nation that much of the western world has deemed as “hopeless”, there’s a crew of people that is solely dedicated to saving lives, and their reach is massive (with an estimate, likely more than 60,000 rescued). If The White Helmets aren’t an indication of hope I don’t know what else is?

“The White Helmts” personally acquaints us with a select few of the volunteers. They share some insights and backgrounds, and we learn that these are average civilians – blacksmith’s, carpenters, tailors, everyday guys – and the collective tone (as well as their motto) “To save a life is to save all of the humanity.”

Of the documentaries to focus on refugees and the troubles abroad, “Watani, My Homeland” is the most accomplished. It follows the transformation of one Syrian family (whose patriarch, Abu Ali, an active field commander in the Free Syrian Army, goes missing, presumed dead) from their flight from the war-torn Syria to their relocation to Germany. “Watani, my Homeland” is probably the best utilization of the short documentary format, giving us a panorama, a journey, and elaborating on the relevance of the Syrian Crisis by posing questions and involving affairs of culture and politics.

Chronologically assembled with detail and movement, “Watani, My Homeland” introduces us to the family in 2013, their squat in Aleppo, and in the details of their everyday lives that underscore the severity of their situation. Abu Ali moved his family to frontlines of the fighting; there’s so much gunfire it seems like white noise to these people. At one point, their seven-year-old daughter determines by sound whether or not a projectile has detonated by how it was launched (after a crashing sound Fara almost gets up, but nonchalantly sits down saying “it didn’t explode”).

The dedication to the family and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s focus is amiable. It doesn’t veer from the film’s subjects, nor get bogged down by the larger issues on the periphery. There’s enough strength in this family to fuel a feature-length documentary, but recognizing the validity of your narrative focus is the quality of a good filmmaker. There’s some nitpicks with contrivances (such as juxtaposing footage of the girls playing with toy guns while their father wields an M-60) that are a tad on the nose, but it’s hard to discount the accumulative effect of “Watani, My Homeland”.

We have a black and white idealization of foreign affairs, and the tendency to project Muslims as either malicious fundamentalists or woefully innocent victims of circumstance, when it’s time to look at them for who they are – people! That’s what this documentary does.

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