I am happy to again have a chance to watch and review the Oscar-nominated shorts. Not typically something I watch a lot of, short films such as these are, according to the Academy, the best the world has to offer and there most certainly is an international flavor to them all. In the coming days, I will be rolling out my reviews of those anointed by the Academy as the top five in the following categories: live-action, animated and documentary. The first crop I will tackle is the documentary shorts.
As with feature length films in this category, these capture a number of different scenarios and situations, all filmed how they, in real life, have occurred. This year’s slate of films were not easy films to watch as the subject of nearly all five tackled intense, difficult and somewhat depressing topics. That these films were nominated for Oscar raises their profiles and hopefully the issues contained within them as well.
Our Curse gets it’s title from a respiratory disorder called Ondine’s Curse or more commonly known as CCHS (congenital central hypoventilation syndrome) which causes arrested breathing while sleeping. It is rare (only 1,000 people have been identified with having it) and it is often fatal. Our Curse is a film made by Tomasz Sliwinski, a father whose son Leo has CCHS, and chronicles he and his wife’s, Magda Hueckel, struggle struggle to adapt to having a child that needs round the clock care to insure his safety. This is an extremely difficult journey to watch as we see them go through many different phases of dealing with their grief – from disbelief, to anger, to acceptance. In some ways, their actions are infuriating as it almost seems like they are looking for pity by making this film, coming at this from a “woe is me” angle. They film themselves talking about how they are going to cope with having a son that they will likely never see leave their side, all while smoking and drinking wine, slumped over like bored hipsters (see above picture). When Leo arrives home, they are careful to show the difficulties that they are to endure, from the excessive amount of technology required to monitor their sons oxygen levels and heart rate to them have to change out his trach tube (Leo had to be put on a ventilator while in NICU) in one of the most uncomfortable moments in any film I’ve ever seen. But what triumphs here is the time lapse where we see Leo grow and seemingly flourish. Interestingly shot and conceived, Our Curse ultimately fails to reveal much about the disorder and functions more like a “look at what we have to deal with” treatise. It has its moments though mostly because the baby is so damn cute.
Joanna is an interesting film as it takes about a third of the film to set up what’s really going on. At first we are introduced to a woman, the titular Joanna, and her son, Jas. The two seem to have a great rapport and they have interesting back and forths you might not expect between a mother and a young boy. Director Aneta Kopacz sets us up perfectly by letting us get to know these two before dropping the bomb on us that Joanna has cancer. As we traverse through the film, we learn that Joanna is terminal and she is writing a guide for her son and ultimately others who will go through a similar situation as she and her family are. The film and its slow beats and tender shots of her, her son and her husband Piotr are really a meditation on how to live and love. This film, like Our Curse, are shot somewhat unconventionally, catching snippets of life that might too intimate to share. This film is unflinching in that manner. We don’t see the decline of Joanna but get the chance to share in her loving experience with her family, something that is as cathartic to us as viewers as the actual time likely was to Joanna herself. This is a sharp film and incredibly poignant and certainly reminds us to live and love as much as we can everyday. This was my favorite of the documentary shorts.
White Earth is a timely film and one of the first, like Jesse Moss‘s The Overnighters, to tackle the subject of the population boom in North Dakota surrounding the oil and natural gas boom there. The film focuses on two families, told mainly through the experiences of the children. The people are huddled up in RVs rather than houses, the men pull long shifts and are often gone for long periods of time. The young man whose story bookends the film is quite cynical about the oil industry and the effect the drilling is having on the landscape of North Dakota. The young girl and her family that occupy the middle of the film see the opportunities in this industry as a way to get out of debt and collect on the large sums of money being produced by this boom. That they moved from California to North Dakota as a family tells us that they are all in on what’s happening there. I wish this film would have been a little longer and shown us more which is a testament to how well director J. Christian Jensen was able to capture his subjects and tease out how interesting these people’s situations are in under 20 minutes.
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 covers as hot button of a topic as possible right now. With the scandal of terrible delivery of services that the Veterans Administration has gone through over the last year and really dating back to right when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began back in 2001, this film was ripe to be made. Another in the series of films that were nominated that is very tough to watch, Crisis Hotline situates itself in the middle of the the only crisis line set up for veterans in the country. Flush with calls from vets who are suicidal or having trouble coping with reintegration into society, some dating all the way back to Vietnam, the counselors have the incredibly tough job of talking people down from a ledge in order to keep them from hurting themselves and others. Director Ellen Gooseberg Kent doesn’t hold back on showing what these calls are like. While we only hear what the counselors are saying, it is clear that what they are dealing with is desperation in its worst forms. That these people all fire on the same cylinders at nearly every turn and do some really incredible work is not lost in this film. These people are in the trenches every day helping clean up an incredibly murky mess. At the beginning of the film there is an incredibly jarring statistic given – every day, 22 veterans commit suicide, EVERY DAY. This is why what they do is so important. This film was very well done and I’d bet dollars to donuts it will take home the Oscar.
The Reaper (La Parka) is an intimate portrait of Efrain, otherwise known as The Reaper. He works at a slaughterhouse in Mexico and it is his job to kill cows so they can be processed and sold. For 25 years, he has had this job, killing 500 cows a day, 6 days a week (that’s just under 4 million over his tenure there). While he plays it off like it doesn’t bother him, it’s clear that his duties have affected him profoundly. Throughout the film, he reflects on his life, inadvertently commenting on the impact this job has had on him. In the scenes where he is with his large family, we can see he is distant, staring into space. What he’s thinking about we don’t know, but it appears to weigh on him. His facial expressions show that. That he has been able to trot himself out to this job for so long is testament to the iron will he must have. He keeps his eye on what’s important to him and that is his children, being able to clothe, house and feed them. Without this job, that wouldn’t be possible. This, like a few of the others in this category, is a meditation on living and I think has some salient points about responsibility and what that sometimes entails. Efrain‘s journey is one that was incredibly engaging and thought-provoking, one of the many reasons that I treasure the documentary form so much. Beware, for any animal lovers out there, there are a couple of tough spots in here for those who have weak stomachs. I
That’s that. Another interesting slate of choices from the Academy in this category. Depending on your viewpoint, this isn’t the most uplifting set of films, but I think there is something in each one of these that is an important takeaway, something that you can dwell on as you ponder your own life and its meaning. I don’t think this crop of films is as strong as last year’s and they are missing a true gem like Cavedigger, but that’s okay. I’m sure there are many people who would disagree with me. That’s okay, too.
These films are showing in theaters and cinemas across the nation right now. Get there, people, and check out what the short form has to offer.