Monday, February 22, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary Short

Last Day of Freedom is among this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Documentary Short

The nominees are:

Body Team 12
Chau, beyond the lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

There has been talk in social media circles and elsewhere that this may be the dourest lineup ever assembled for this category. Put briefly, these five short films range in topic from the Ebola virus in Liberia, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, and the Holocaust to honor killings in Pakistan and the death penalty in California. On the surface, no, this group does not exactly give off positive vibes, but if we are honest, this category is usually home to unimaginable horrors and tragedies beyond belief. So, in that context, this year is about par for the course.

The simple reason is that in the 40 minutes or less that these films run, emotional resonance counts for a lot, and nothing gets the heart pumping like death and injustice, which all of these have in spades. However, it would be a mistake to think of this as just a grim pageant of despair, though it also is that. Rather, each of these movies – with one exception that we will get to in a moment – has something vital to say about the world in which we live and how we treat the people with whom we share this world.

It is a cliché, but yes, the Academy is inclined to vote for Holocaust films. When you remember that a majority of Academy members were born during or right after World War II, many of them into families directly affected by the war, that tendency is understandable. Beyond that general assessment, it is a little hard to pin down a pattern in this category through the years. If a film covers an important topic with an intimate story that tugs at the heart strings, that film has the makeup of a winner. Our likely frontrunner this year does not quite cover those bases, but it is about the Holocaust.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah – For those unaware, Shoah is a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust directed by Claude Lanzmann. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking and considered by most to be the definitive record of the Holocaust. Lanzmann began work on the film in 1973 and was not finished until 12 years later. He traveled across the globe, put himself directly in harm’s way, endured intense emotional trauma, and came away with a grand statement on the depths of human suffering and the capacity for evil demonstrated by the Holocaust.

The making of Shoah is a remarkable story, but the 40-minute runtime of director Adam Benzine’s Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is not nearly enough time to tell it. Benzine essentially collects a greatest-hits package of Lanzmann telling stories from the production, using specific moments from Shoah to lead Lanzmann into a memory. Lanzmann, a gifted storyteller not known for his brevity, has time for about four or five memories. Knowing it took 12 years to make a 10-hour movie, four or five recollections from the production just do not cut it.

Still, as we discussed yesterday with the feature documentaries, the Academy loves films about artists, and that is doubly true of films about filmmakers. Lanzmann is not widely liked – as mentioned in the film, he is prickly, stubborn, and just generally difficult – but he is highly respected. Though he is not a nominee, awarding this film about Lanzmann’s work could be a way for the Academy to honor Lanzmann himself, who has never been recognized with either an Oscar win or a nomination.

Last Day of Freedom – First-time filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman immediately distinguish their film by choosing to present it entirely in hand-drawn animation. It is not unheard of to blend documentary and animation, and among the benefits of the shift in medium is that it allows the filmmakers to depict scenes they otherwise never could. In Last Day of Freedom, Hibbert-Jones and Talisman match of the vividness of their interview subject’s tragic tale with the vibrancy of their animation style, drawing viewers deeper into the narrative than traditional storytelling techniques might.

Last Day of Freedom tells of Manny Babbitt, a mentally ill Vietnam War veteran whom a failed justice system executed for murder. There is no question of whether Babbitt committed the crime, but because of his personal history, his level of culpability is suspect at best. As interview subject Bill Babbitt, Manny’s brother, identifies: In an election year for the district attorney, blood demands blood. At no point did Manny Babbitt receive fair or just treatment under the law with an incompetent attorney, an overreaching, politically minded DA, and an all-white jury.

The tragedy of the film – beyond the obvious miscarriages of justice – is in listening to Bill Babbitt tell the tale of his brother’s life. The animation allows us to see this tale in full as we watch the two men dig for clams at the beach or play football together as children. Hibbert-Jones and Talisman bring Manny Babbitt back to life through their drawings, and though we cannot undo the harm that has been done, the film makes it clear we have a moral responsibility to prevent further harm in this world.

Chau, beyond the lines – Director Courtney Marsh started out with the intention of making one film – a disturbing chronicle of daily life in a Vietnamese hospital for children with disabilities caused by exposure to Agent Orange – yet over the course of eight years, she allowed her film to transform into a stirring portrait of defiance and triumph. The nurses interviewed in the film refer to the hospital as a camp, which gives the impression of a sort of summer day school, but as the film’s primary subject, Chau, later identifies, it is closer to a prison where the disabled are held in isolation.

Chau is told by the nurses his dream of becoming an artist and clothing designer is unattainable and a waste of everyone’s time. We learn early on that children can be voted out of the hospital by nurses who no longer want to deal with them, and Chau treads dangerously close to that line. So, rather than be told to leave, he takes off on his own, first staying with his parents, who steal his disability checks, then by himself in the city.

Though his struggles with finding a job and fending for himself are all-consuming, he returns to his dream of creating art and begins turning out beautiful paintings by holding the brush in his mouth. It is only by Marsh’s dedication to the process, visiting Chau over eight years, that the film undergoes a transformation from one about victimization to one about accomplishment.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – There is no such triumph or victory in director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River. There is only pain, misery, and endless oppression. Saba is a 19-year-old girl who marries the man she loves, though her family has forbidden it. For supposedly bringing shame upon her family, Saba is taken to the river by her father and uncle, shot in the head, bagged, and thrown in the water. She miraculously survives the attack and sets out to find justice, but in Pakistan, where we are told 1,000 girls a year are murdered in so-called “honor killings,” justice may not be achievable.

Obaid-Chinoy is a previous Oscar winner in this category for co-directing Saving Face, which follows along similar thematic lines but concerns victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. However, where that film was a record of hope and shined a light forward, A Girl in the River is despairingly bleak. Saba becomes a victim all over again as local custom demands she forgive her attackers so they can be set free without punishment and so that ill will among neighbors can be avoided. It is an entire culture built on the subjugation of women and the privileging of “honor” over humanity.

Body Team 12 – The shortest and consequently least satisfying among this year’s nominees, director David Darg’s Body Team 12 shows the Ebola crisis in Liberia through the eyes of a woman tasked with removing the dead bodies of Ebola victims from homes. Running just 13 minutes, much of the footage shown in the film is of the process of preparing to remove a body, the removal, and the cleanup afterward – truly, you have never seen so many shots of someone putting on goggles.

Speaking over most of this footage is Garmai Sumo, the only female member of the body team, who takes great pride in the work she is doing for her country. She sees it as her patriotic duty to help stop the spread of the Ebola virus. In fulfilling this duty, she puts herself and her family at great risk and loses most of her friends to fear of contracting the virus. Sumo is intelligent, talented, and philosophical, and one wishes we only had more time to spend with her.

The final analysis

Any of these could win and it would not be surprising. As is so often the case with the shorts categories, the winner comes down to who has seen the films. Urgency of topic and emotional impact often show the way, but at least four of these films concern issues we continue to deal with in our society, and they all tread in similar emotional waters with questions about human decency and moral obligation. No one film stands out as necessarily more deserving than the others, so this is a best-guess scenario, and my best guess is Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, though I would add A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a strong second possibility.

Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Should win: Last Day of Freedom

Tomorrow: Best Foreign Language Film

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