The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts: Access and Interpretation, by Alexander Miller


dir. Laura Checkoway

Shaping a short subject documentary is reliant on the scope of the subject and how well the filmmaker can punctuate and elaborate the import of the story. With “Edith+Eddie,” director Laura Checkoway shapes a succinct and emotionally wrenching tale by examining the relationship of elderly married couple Edith and Eddie. Eddie is 95 years-old and white and Edith is 96 and black, but color doesn’t matter because they’re in love and happily married, they have friends, a supporting parish, and family, what could go wrong? Well, a disagreement between Edith’s daughters regarding her property and mental capacity (she is diagnosed with mild dementia) leads to manipulation of guardianship. Leaving Edith in the care of a social worker as she becomes a ward of the state drives her and Eddie’s marriage apart, coercing Edith into making decisions against her will.

Brisk and effectively realized, Checkoway touches on the accessibility of a deviated bureaucracy that allows people to manipulate the elderly while maintaining an emotionally touching portrait that is moving and heartfelt.

“Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405”

dir. Frank Stiefel

People are beautiful and brilliant. That’s what I took away from “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” a portrait of artist Mindy Alpert. Who at the age of sixty-five has endured years of archaic and adverse mental health treatment (electroshock therapy, institutionalization, lost her ability to speak for ten years) due to her anxiety, and depression, and she is also an esteemed member of the Los Angeles art community.

The most successful aspect of Frank Stiefel’s documentary is that it showcases the work of Mindy Alpert and provides us with a candid portrait that allows her to articulate her feelings regarding her art, where it comes from, and the events that inspired her creations. Alpert and her work, which ranges from sketches and drawing to papier mache is the centerpiece of this short. Interview footage with her mother and group therapy sessions provide supplementary awareness to the subject. But “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” falters when it employs flashy editing techniques and sound effects as a means to recreate or put us in Alpert’s state of mind to understand her disorder. When your subject is brimming with talent and you have access to her and her work, then that’s the documentary. The content (literally) speaks for itself. The final product is over furnished but it shines a light on a person whose story is inspiring even if the delivery is not.


dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon

We are a society in decline. Things are bad but one thing didn’t need to get worse. It didn’t just get worse, it mutated into an epidemic and that plague is heroin addiction. Netflix scored with last year’s short documentary winner “The White Helmets” and has produced another with the uniformly engaging and well crafted “Heroin(e).” A sharply articulated look at the epidemic of opioid addiction in Huntington, West Virginia, another economically deviated town that was once a place of industry is now one of America’s heroin-hot-zones with an overdose rate that is ten times the national average.

Elaine Sheldon’s film doesn’t shy from the harsh realities that are the ravages of opiate addiction. “Heroin(e)” isn’t a misery buffet as it follows three women who are dedicated advocates for change: Fire Chief Jan Rader, Patricia Keller, a judge who presides over drug court, and Necia Freeman, a member of the Brown Bag Ministry. As fire chief Rader is a first responder to the many overdoses, we see her revive people who have fallen out but we also look at her interactions with public in the forms of hearings and distributing naloxone (a synthetic drug that dulls the brain’s receptors to opiates, essential in treating overdoses) to local firehouses. Judge Keller handles the myriad drug-related offenders and wields compassion and discipline, her blend of compassion and discipline should be a model for the effectiveness of drug court. Freeman and contributes by handing out food to the many who resort to prostitution as a result of mounting drug use, she advocates shelter placement and recovery for transient addicts.

“Heroin(e)” doesn’t insist on the import of its subject as a thesis but shines a light on ways that change can be enacted through civil, judicial and municipal action. We have lost the so-called war on drugs and the victims are everywhere. Swift, focused with an efficiently pragmatic execution of an epidemic that is too large to ignore.

“Knife Skills”

dir. Thomas Lennon

The key to crafting a good documentary is finding a subject that evokes the cliché “You can’t make that shit up” and that’s one of the many reasons why Thomas Lennon’s “Knife Skills” is such a pleasure. “Knife Skills” follows the nervy, high-pressure stress that is the world of fine dining but the subject here is a restaurant called Edwin’s, located in Cleveland, Ohio. Their staff is on a crash course in learning everything there is about cooking, wine regions, wine pairing, and food service. It’s imperative because the workforce is almost entirely comprised of men and women recently released from prison, hosts, servers, cooks, bartenders, bussers upper and lower management and many haven’t worked in food service.

Lennon presents the mechanics of Edwin’s not so much as a human interest story but as a way to look at an industry that is commonly associated with pretentiousness and self-importance taking a sociological approach in offering job opportunities to ex-convicts. The restaurant is providing a service that isn’t an institutional form of cultural glad-handing. This isn’t a government institution but the product of a savvy business itinerary with an eye for humanism. “Knife Skills” is a matter-of-fact discovery of private and public interests enriching the lives of people who would otherwise be maligned by society. Lennon’s handling of the material focuses on a handful of employees from various positions in the restaurant: Line cooks, bartenders and, most importantly, the owner and manager, Brandon Edwin Chrostowski. Programs and reality shows on The Food Network have bastardized the haughty industry affectations and “Knife Skills” is a satisfying and entertaining countermeasure to the over-embellished culinary world. It also proves that with proper training and environment you can achieve success in the restaurant business.

Due to technical difficulties, we were not able to review Kate Davis’ “Traffic Stop.”

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