Monday, February 20, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary Short

Director Daphne Matziaraki's 4.1 Miles is nominated 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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Documentary Short

The nominees are:

4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

The political winds of the nation are unavoidable in many of this year’s categories, but they seem particularly foregrounded here. One imagines at least four of these five nominees as a direct affront to the anti-immigrant, anti-art, anti-intellectual presidential administration. What all five of these films share, however – and what may be the biggest offense to the orange man in the White House – is that they are all resolutely pro-human.

These films celebrate the basic humanity that connects us all, and as these subjects face unimaginable but very real tragedy and pain, they serve as a reminder of our responsibility to each other. This world does not belong, if it even belongs to anyone, to just one nation or just one people. The house is on fire, and if it goes down in flames, we all burn with it. While those in power light their matches, these films remind us to hold up our end of the hose so maybe we can salvage something.

4.1 Miles (directed by Daphne Matziaraki) – At one time or another, most people have wondered if they have what it takes to save a life. Few are ever confronted with that prospect. Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos always wanted to be a commercial fisherman. Instead, he joined the Coast Guard, once a peaceful profession for him before the migrant crisis. Now, he is tasked with saving hundreds of lives every day, a duty for which he did not sign up but which he holds sacred no less.

Matziaraki, who won the Student Academy Award for 4.1 Miles, follows Papadopoulos as he is called out to rescue stranded boat after stranded boat, filled with men, women, and children fleeing violence and oppression. He sees the faces – the anguish, the desperation, the despair – every day, but he goes back out every single time. These migrants had no choice but escape, and Papadopoulos has no choice but to help them.

The film is a wonderful companion piece to Gianfranco Rosi’s also Oscar-nominated feature documentary Fire at Sea. 4.1 Miles is more focused and intimate, while Fire at Sea is a more all-encompassing experience, differences mostly attributable to runtime and reflecting not at all the quality of the endeavors. Matziaraki, who is Greek but lives in the Bay Area, has a wonderful feel for life in this town, and in just 26 minutes, she uncovers a disquieting rhythm of events as it becomes clear these stranded boats are becoming more and more a part of daily life.

Watani: My Homeland (directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen) – When filming a documentary on current events, watching history unfold before your camera, you can never be certain where the story will lead you. The courage and dedication to follow along its winding path is part of what makes a great documentarian and why films like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA represent two of the peaks of the form. So, when German filmmaker Mettelsiefen began filming Syrian freedom fighter Abu Ali and his family, he could not have known the journey he was about to capture.

Mettelsiefen first filmed the Ali family in 2013 in Aleppo, Syria, for a PBS Frontline documentary. He returned the next year and the next for a follow-up doc, finally visiting the family once more in 2016 to shoot footage for this film. We are privileged to watch the Ali family’s four children grow and develop and mature over the course of years. We see how the conflict shapes and molds them, but we also get to see how the people they are is within them.

The oldest daughter, whether she knows it or not, is a poet, the middle daughter is irrepressible, while the only son is mature beyond his years. It should go without saying but bears repeating this family is not so different from any of ours but for the dire circumstances under which it lives. Dropped into a quiet American suburb, these children would still be poetic, irrepressible, and mature. If not for geography, they would be our neighbors and friends, though Mettelsiefen argues, in very real ways, they already are our neighbors and friends.

The White Helmets (directed by Orlando von Einsiedel) – Von Einsiedel and nominated producer Joanna Natasegara previously were nominated for Best Documentary two years ago for Virunga, which follows a team of volunteers fighting to save the last members of an endangered species. Both films concern heroes who are ordinary people but put themselves at great risk to make the world a better place.

Here, we follow the eponymous White Helmets, a well-organized collective of ordinary Syrian citizens who have dedicated themselves to helping the victims of the Syrian and Russian bombing campaigns. When a bomb strikes, these men don their helmets and rush into the destruction, putting out fires, pulling people out of the rubble, and administering medical aid. These men are carpenters and accountants and chefs, but when crisis strikes, as it so often does in Syria, they are the first responders, the people on whom the community counts.

It is, however, no tale of easy heroism. Von Einsiedel shows us the toll this work takes on the men, both physically and emotionally. The buildings bombed are their neighborhoods. The victims are their friends and family. They are always at risk and always targets. There is no safety in this place but what these brave men offer each other and their communities. We see this is not much but that it is better to have something, someone, than nothing at all and no one.

Joe’s Violin (directed by Kahane Cooperman) – There are no ordinary circumstances under which Joe Feingold and Brianna Perez would meet. Feingold is a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, and Perez is a 12-year-old student in The Bronx. Cooperman’s film shows us the bond they form over the title instruments and how small acts of charity can ripple through lifetimes.

After Feingold was liberated from a forced-labor camp at the end of World War II, he traded a carton of cigarettes for a violin, an instrument he had played since he was a child. It would be nearly 70 years before Perez came into his life. After hearing about an instrument drive on the radio, Feingold decided he no longer played his violin and perhaps someone else could get some use out of it. The instrument ended up in The Bronx at a school for underprivileged children, where learning violin is part of the curriculum. Given the violin’s storied past, the school determines to give it to a student who will cherish its history and create more of her own. This is Perez.

Cooperman mostly stays out of the way of the material, smartly recognizing she has a story that needs no embellishment. Her camera’s presence is all we require, and when Feingold and Perez meet and she plays for him, we are like a fly on the wall, witnessing something extraordinary. Yes, these are the kind of moments music makes, but more than that, these moments happen when we reach out, in however small a way, to connect to another person.

Extremis (directed by Dan Krauss) – Conservative religious groups and certain members of the government would like us to spend a lot of time wondering when life begins. Extremis asks when life ends. Krauss’ camera takes us inside an intensive care unit, where doctors must help families make among the toughest decisions they ever will – whether to take their loved ones off life support or whether to extend their lives, and perhaps their suffering, by any means necessary.

The film is undoubtedly emotionally charged as we see families wrestle with grief, guilt, faith, and hope, but it is never clear what the audience’s takeaway from any of this should be. Extremis feels like a Rorschach test, which is perhaps what was intended by Krauss, a previous nominee in this category 11 years ago. It is impossible to watch the film without wondering what we would do for our loved ones as they near death or what we would want done for us under similar circumstances. Whatever you bring to the movie, though, will be what you take from it. This makes for compelling viewing, but it is not particularly enlightening.

The final analysis

Any could win, and except for Extremis, which is the weakest of these nominees, though by no means a bad film, any would be a worthy winner. It will be interesting to see what kind of night we are in for at the Academy Awards. The likely historic success of La La Land suggests this is the year of escapism, of turning to the movies to forget that the world is falling apart around us. However, in little ways, all across the ceremony, Academy members have the chance to lodge their protest.

Under normal circumstances, or even just circumstances when the Doomsday Clock felt closer to 11:59 than midnight, I would predict Joe’s Violin without a second thought. However, these are not normal circumstances, and midnight is fast approaching. While the uplifting music documentary about the Holocaust survivor would seem to check all the boxes of a usual winner, I cannot imagine the Academy would pass up the opportunity to address the concerns of the moment, if only because these concerns are everyone’s concerns.

This leaves us with three possibilities: Watani, The White Helmets, and 4.1 Miles. It is possible the two Syrian-set films will split the vote and open the door for 4.1 Miles. For emotional resonance, though, not to mention the dedication of the filmmakers and the global relevance of its topic, it seems Watani may be the film to beat.

Will win: Watani: My Homeland
Should win: 4.1 Miles

Tomorrow: Best Director

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