Review: Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

oscar shorts 2016Here I am back it after a brief hiatus and I’m happy that this year I am fortunate enough to bring you coverage of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. Over the next few days, I will roll out reviews in each of the categories – documentary, animation and live action. Since I’m the resident documentary cat around here at Reel News Daily, I thought I would start off in that category. These films cover a variety of important and emotional topics from honor killings in Pakistan to the affects of Agent Orange on the youth of Vietnam to the fallout of capital punishment on the family of the accused. These five films hit every emotional string that you can imagine and leave an impression long after the viewing has ended.

Body Team 12

oscar shorts 16 - body team 12Body Team 12, directed by David Darg (as well as produced by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame as well as actress Olivia Wilde), follows one of the teams charged with removing the bodies of the those who died during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia this past year. It is shown through the perspective of the only female member. Body Team 12 is a moving portrait of community members doing an incredibly difficult and dangerous job to do their part to help curb the epidemic. That said, there are some incredibly difficult parts in watching family members of the deceased deal with the loss of their loved ones. The shortest film in the bunch at just over 13 minutes, Body Team 12 is able to pack a narrative wallop that hits you right in the gut, which makes it no wonder that it was nominated for an Oscar in this category. This film will debut on HBO in March.

 

Chau, beyond the lines

oscar shorts 16 chauChau, beyond the lines is a moving film about Chau, a young man whose body is deformed from his parents having been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Because of the degree of care he needed, Chau was sent to a peace camp (an orphanage of sorts) where other children – some more, others less – affected by Agent Orange live and are taken care of by a group of state-funded nurses. Chau is an artist at heart and spends his time dedicating himself to honing his craft, which isn’t easy because of the deformities that have affected his hands and arms. Every year, Chau submits a piece to a national contest for young artists across the country, each believing and hoping that he can win and garner some attention on the merits of his art, not his disabilities. Make no bones about it, this one is a difficult watch, but well worth it. This is a story that shows that nearly 45 years after the end of the war in Vietnam, the price is still paid for the hostilities. Chau has an unbelievably positive outlook on life and begs us to all ask the question, “why can’t we do the same?” Written and directed by Courtney Marsh.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

oscar shorts 16 - lanzmann posterAdam Benzine‘s short treatise on director Claude Lanzmann and the making of his seminal documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah. The director queries Lanzmann and others (including fellow documentarian Marcel Ophüls who calls Lanzmann a megalomaniac) about the struggles of making of the film as well as its impact. What can be sure is that Shoah is indeed a masterpiece and widely considered one of the best documentaries ever made. The 12 years that went into filming and editing this film took a toll on Lanzmann who was never the same after making it. From having to surreptitiously record conversations with former Nazis to getting beaten by some who found out his game to having to listen to the stories of those who survived concentration camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz, it’s no wonder. An incredilby affecting piece, Lanzmann is a person worthy of documenting, which makes sense since his life was devoted to the same thing. This film debuts on HBO in May.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

oscar shorts 16 - girl in the riverDirected by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is by far the film that I found had to most effect on me in this category. After a few contextual shots of the city of Gujranwala, Pakistan (population 5 million), the film opens with Saba Qaiser in the emergency room of the hospital, getting her face stitched up from a gunshot wound. Saba had been attacked by her father and uncle in an effort to kill her for dishonoring their family by marrying someone of a social class they didn’t believe high enough and disobeying her father’s orders. The film opens with a statistic that nearly every year, 1,000 of the so-called honor killings take place in Pakistan despite being illegal. Saba was fortunate in some ways to survive this attack. Fortunate in that she lived, but unfortunate that she must now face the pressing question of whether she should forgive her father and uncle and let them free from jail where they can essentially attack her again if they please. She is adamant against forgiving them and even goes so far as to say they should be killed in a public market as an example to any others considering doing this. However, the reality is her mother and sisters face a lifetime of shame because of her deeds and with her father the sole breadwinner in the house, they would likely not be able to support themselves. A decision that is heavier than anything I can imagine. That Obaid-Chinoy was able to access Saba throughout the entire ordeal makes this film really quite stunning and heartbreaking all the same. If I had a vote for the Oscar, this one gets mine. This film will also debut on HBO in March.

The trailer for this film can be found here.

Last Day of Freedom

oscar shorts 16 - last day of freedomThe final nominee is Last Day of Freedom directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, is one of the more innovative films nominated in this category I’ve seen to date. It is animated, a kind of mixture of recreations a la Errol Morris with a something that resembles the style of Richard Linklater‘s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The film allows Bill Babbitt to tell the story of his brother, Manny, a Vietnam vet who was arrested for murder and sentenced to death. The circumstances surrounding Manny‘s actions were colored by his PTSD and schizophrenia diagnosis, but somehow he still found himself on death row. Bill‘s account gives such a stark and emotional rendering of what it is like to live in the shadow of a loved one’s violent actions, that it wasn’t just the victim and their family who have suffered, but also the loved one’s of the perpetrator. Not only that, this films serves as a stark reminder, one that we seem to see all too many times these days, that justice is not always served.

 

By no means are these films uplifting as they all expose a piece of misery of that sticks with their subjects every single day. What they do do, as I think only documentaries can do, is shed light on subject matter that isn’t easy to face or confront and allow it to be seen in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor flippant. These films help us remind us that even at times when things are the shittiest, that humanity can still succeed. While I don’t have access to the many films that were submitted for this award, I can say that these films represent the documentary spirit well.

 

Jeremy’s Review: Marah Strauch’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ Is a Stunning and Defining Portrait of Base-Jumping Pioneer Carl Boenish

Sunshine Superman posterSome people have no fear and that has always amazed me. I guess I’ve been a fairly cautious fellow in my life so it’s easy to be in awe of someone like Carl Boenish, who threw caution literally to the wind for the bulk of his life. Who is Carl Boenish you ask? Well, he is the father of BASE jumping. What is BASE jumping you ask? Well, it is jumping with the aid of a parachute (or more recently a wing suit) from a fixed structure. When Boenish and his merry band of adrenaline junkies devised the term, it meant Buildings, Antenna towers, Spans and Earth – all of the different types of structures or formations from which one could jump.

Sunshine Superman-1Boenish was special person. He brought a certain energy that really permeated whatever group of people he was around. Once an engineer, he bailed on that profession after doing aerial cinematography for the film The Gypsy Moths directed by John Frankenheimer starring Hollywood heavyweights Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (all Oscar nominees or winners) and never looked back. Filming his jumps and creating films from them now took all of the focus in his life. However, he wasn’t satisfied with diving out of planes, so he took to diving from whatever tall structures or formations he could find, from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to unfinished buildings in downtown Los Angeles (still filming them). Of course, his new passion brought with it troubles, especially those of the legal kind. But Boenish and crew always found a way to get their jumps in, even if they had to do them guerrilla style.

Sunshine Superman-7

Over the first hour of the film, Strauch tells us these background details, all of which lead up to two of the most important moments in Boenish‘s life – his marriage to fellow BASE jumper Jean Boenish and their quest for immortality with their record setting jump from Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway. He and Jean were like two peas in a pod and the sheer amount of archival footage that Strauch weaves into the film confirms this. She was never hesitant to do the crazy things he wanted to and for that, they were a perfect match. So, as part of That’s Incredible!, a television show hosted by David Frost and a young Kathy Lee Gifford, he and Jean jumped from nearly 6,000 and set the world record.

Sunshine Superman-8

But as I said above, Carl was never satisfied and not even 12 hours later, unable to sleep, he took another shot at Trollveggen from a different jump site. Defying the advice that it was too dangerous to jump from, Boenish did it his way and jumped. Unfortunately, he hit the wall during the freefall and didn’t survive and the BASE jumping community lost their leader, and Jean her husband. As stated before, Jean was very much like Carl and only two days after his death, she jumped from the same spot…and survived.

Sunshine Superman-6

This is hands down one of the top three documentaries I’ve seen so far this year. Strauch‘s approach handles the Boenish legacy with honesty and the same energy that Carl exhibited when he was alive. Filled with tons of archival footage and testimonies from his family and friends and much of it from Jean, we are really able to get a sense of who Carl was and why he loved doing what he did best. Strauch also takes a page out of Errol Morris‘ book using many re-enactments of scenes adding another layer to the depth of the film to great effect, placing the viewer in the shoes of Boenish himself. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength, however, is that Boenish‘s legacy is treated with such respect. Through all of the interviews with the many people he worked with and jumped alongside, including his wife, no tears were shed at the loss of his life or in their remembrance of Carl and the amazing amount of joy he was able to bring them all. This wasn’t because they haven’t mourned the loss of someone they respected and loved, but because they knew he died doing exactly what he was put on Earth for and who could begrudge him that? Expertly crafted with precision editing and great music to boot, Sunshine Superman really is an enduring portrait of a man most people American don’t know. To answer that, this is one hell of an introduction.

The film is brought to you by the good folks at Magnolia Pictures and it opens today in New York and Los Angeles but will gradually open wider in the coming weeks. Here is a list of venues and dates where it will play.

So if, in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, you find yourself looking for a film that lacks explosions, car chases and superheroes, look no further than this film. It will leave a lasting impression and hopefully inspire people to do what they love, what they feel they were born to do. Sunshine Superman takes on additional significance with the  deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt last week during a wing suit jump in Yosemite.

Get there, people.

Here’s the trailer:

If I Chose the Academy Award Winners and Nominees – 2015 edition

I’ve now seen most of the films that had a release in 2014. This makes me more qualified to vote for the Oscars than 97.548% of the Academy’s membership. With the Oscar ceremony occurring tonight, I’ve picked, as I have the previous two years, who I think the nominees and winners should be in the bulk of the major categories. Once again, the foreign film category will be left off because I simply haven’t had access to enough foreign films to make a comment on them. Those that have made it to my neck of the woods, I will say, have been very good for the most part. Read More →

Melissa’s Movie of the Day: ‘The Thin Blue Line’ on Netflix Instant

I started watching The Thin Blue Line a few days ago but only got through the first 15 minutes before having to turn it off. There was no particular reason, I just wanted to finally watch it, as I’ve heard of it for years. I knew it was an Errol Morris documentary. That’s it. This morning I went back to continue and decided to just start from the beginning. As I watched the men describe the events, a date flashed on the screen in which the tragedy took place: November 29, 1976. Thirty-eight years ago to the day. Read More →