Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary Short

Polish documentary short Joanna is one of the most beautiful films of the year.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Documentary Short

The nominees are:

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper
White Earth

Worlds apart, two fathers return home from work, one smelling of oil and the other of death. In Poland, a young mother faces her coming death not with fear for herself but for what will happen to her son and husband after she is gone, while another young mother faces the reality that her son may not live through the night. In the U.S., one staff of heroic men and women dedicates its days and nights to ensuring that thousands of families remain intact in the face of a mental health crisis.

This year’s documentary shorts take on big themes of family, death, loss, and hope, all in the span of 40 minutes or less. Among them, one deals with the macro issue of veterans health care, while another focuses on the micro issue of one woman’s death. Still others are more impressionistic, philosophical, and open ended.

No approach is necessarily better, and no topic is necessarily more important than any other. It is all about perspective, and the great thing about the documentary shorts is how concisely and elegantly the directors are able to share their perspectives. In less time than it takes to watch an episode of television, these directors take us inside the lives of people we may never meet but in whom we can recognize ourselves.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent) – In a year in which American Sniper has captured the zeitgeist to the tune of more than $300 million in box office receipts, six Academy Award nominations, and countless media think pieces, it seems to me one of the most vital issues raised by the film has been one of its least talked about aspects. I cannot speak to the rest of the world’s successes or failures, but the U.S. has a shameful record when it comes to veterans care.

A metaphor made plain in Crisis Hotline, we have no problem paying to equip our soldiers for going to war, but we balk at the necessary sacrifices to equip them for coming home. The call center chronicled in Crisis Hotline is the only one of its kind in the U.S., handling calls from veterans dealing with PTSD, depression, and thoughts of suicide, among other mental health issues. The counselors who operate the phones are as much heroes as the men and women of the armed services they try to help.

Rather than give a general outline of what they do and how, the film focuses on a handful of real calls – shown in real time – from veterans contemplating suicide, intercut with brief interviews with the counselors and their supervisors. The statistics flashed in the film are staggering, but the point is driven home by listening to these counselors interact with people who have reached the end of the line and see nothing but darkness ahead of them.

Joanna (directed by Aneta Kopacz) – Simple, beautiful, and life affirming, even as it confronts the tragedy of death, Joanna is the story of a young wife and mother who is diagnosed with cancer. Using no voiceover and just one opening and closing title card, the film slowly reveals itself to be a meditation on what it is like to reach the end of your life in the middle. Joanna has a 5-year-old son whom she dotes on constantly and loves deeply, even in the times when he clearly irritates her, as any young boy might annoy his weary mother.

Joanna has a blog, which she writes for her son so that he may have something of her and a guide for living without her when she is gone – an eventuality that seems to be coming sooner than anyone thought. As she approaches the end, the simple things appeal to her most such as taking the kayak out, picking mushrooms, and watching her son ride a bike for the first time. She tells her husband she is not afraid to die. She is afraid to leave him and her son by themselves.

Photographed by Lukasz Zal, who is nominated this year for Best Cinematography for his work on Ida, the film is the most beautiful of this group and one of the most beautifully shot of the year. Scenes come in and go out of focus as Joanna and her family’s attentions drift back and forth between the trivial matters of the day and the inevitability of her fate.

As an assignment for school, her son asks what her favorite thing to do is, and she says, “Spending time with you.” He corrects her and says the assignment is to find out what she likes to do by herself. She thinks a moment, then says she does not like to be alone. As someone facing down the prospect of death, it is understandable now more than ever why she would not want to be alone. Through one woman’s story, the film serves as a potent reminder to all of us to enjoy the time we have and to try to spend it with those we love.

Our Curse (directed by Tomasz Sliwinski) – Obviously without meaning to be, the other Polish short documentary in the lineup serves as a kind of mirror to Joanna. The film concerns two parents – the father is also the film’s director – whose son is born with a rare condition that causes him to stop breathing when he falls asleep. Instead of staring down the end of a life, as in Joanna, the parents in Our Curse are facing the beginning of a life that could come to an end at any time.

With honesty, humor, and an unflinching eye for detail, Sliwinski documents his and his wife’s daily struggle with a child they could lose at any moment. The couple talks about their fears, their doubts, and their hopes openly and without vanity. They set themselves up to be judged when they feel bad for themselves and for their disabled child, but the beauty of the film is how it makes the audience want to empathize with this family rather than judge them. None of us can say for sure that faced with the same situation, we would not react as they do. When the whole of the film is revealed, it becomes clear we should hope to act as this family does – adversity or not.

The Reaper (directed by Gabriel Serra) – Efrain is known as The Reaper. He works in a slaughterhouse in Mexico and is the man charged with putting the cattle to death. Truth be told, I was wary of the prospect of another documentary about how my meat gets to my table. There is nothing necessarily wrong with documenting the origins of our food, but it feels like well trodden territory. However, The Reaper is not a story of meat. It is a story of life and what it is like to take a life for a living.

If I have done the math correctly, Efrain has killed more than 1.5 million bulls in a career he stumbled into by accident. As the film asserts and Efrain confirms, you cannot be a party to that much death without it staining your soul in some way. He has dreams of cattle telling him it is his turn, and he says he knows these are not normal dreams to have. Day in and day out, he brings death to animals he says he recognizes feel the same pain and fear we do, as he would.

Efrain’s personal story is paired with static shots of the process of the slaughter. We see hooks and chains, conveyor belts and tunnels, and everywhere pools of blood. The images are striking, not just for their evident brutality but for how commonplace it all seems. When Serra shows us in great detail how the skin is pulled from the carcass of a bull, it appears no more troublesome than peeling apart a Velcro strap. Death is just part of the day here, nothing more, and that familiarity with death is perhaps the most troubling thing of all.

White Earth (directed by Christian Jensen) – It is no coincidence probably that White Earth is the shortest of the nominees in this category – clocking in at just 20 minutes – and also feels like the least developed. Jensen’s film concerns the residents of White Earth, N.D., an oil boom town that we are told was home to 60 people 60 years ago. Today, 500 people live there. Seen mostly through eyes of oil rig workers’ children, White Earth is an intriguing study of what life is like for people who feel as though they have no options but those placed in front of them.

Few people are White Earth natives. Most moved for the promise of jobs and money, and while the job part has mostly worked out, the money has not flowed as they might have hoped. Many of the children go through their lives with minimal contact with their fathers, who may spend weeks or months in the oil fields without coming home. One child does not even attend school and muses that he does not care about the oil industry now, but when he turns 18 and it is time for him to take a job in the fields, he will probably start to care. It is a town built on dreams that seems devoid of hope.

The final analysis

Predicting the shorts categories is always a fool’s errand, and predicting the Documentary Short winner is most difficult of all. There is little to go off in the way of precursor awards, as almost all of these had their premiers at small film festivals. So, guessing what will win generally comes down to guessing voters’ emotional responses to the nominated films.

Joanna is the most openly emotional story, followed closely by Crisis Hotline. Crisis Hotline benefits from being a topical American issue and added relevance thanks to American Sniper. White Earth has proven popular but may be too slight to win. Ditto Our Curse and The Reaper, though they only seem slight if you are not paying attention. Ultimately, this is the most wide-open race of Oscar evening, but I would say Crisis Hotline has a slight edge.

Will win: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Should win: Joanna

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