Saturday, January 31, 2015

A final post on those Oscar-nominated short-films: taking a look at the five documentaries

By far the lengthiest of the the Academy-Award short film categories, the program of five documentary short subjects lasts around two and one-third hours. This category also provide the biggest embarrassment of this supposed nationwide theatrical release of Award-nominated shorts. This is not because of the quality involved -- the five shorts in this category range from good to excellent -- but because it turns out that this particular part of the Oscar shorts program will not even be showing at most of the participating theaters.

I just spent over half an hour of time (that I should have used writing, designing, and link-finding) searching for any theater showing the documentary portion of this program. I found exactly one: The IFC Center in New York City. There may be more, but I really don't have time to do a longer search. If you know of other theaters showing the docs program, please advise me. Even the Los Angeles area -- Oscar's home -- (not to mention the rest of the country) has elected to show only the animated and live action programs. So much for the documentary format. As ever, it's the movies' poor step-child.

Touting the theatrical release of these films together in one package is not simply misleading; it's more like false advertising. Fortunately, according to the Shorts' web site, together with the theatrical run, the nominated short films will be available on Vimeo On Demand, iTunes® Stores in 54 countries, Amazon Instant Video®, Verizon and will be released across the US on VOD/Pay Per View platforms. I hope the VOD and digital stream modes do better by the documentary section. In any case, here are the five films in the Documentary Shorts category, with their standard information listed first and my "take" on each shown in italics below....

USA / 39 mins;  Director: Ellen Goosenberg Kent;  
Producer: Dana Perry
This timely documentary spotlights the traumas endured by America’s veterans, as seen through the work of the hotline’s trained responders, who provide immediate intervention and support in hopes of saving the lives of service members.

This fine short doc, from HBO, may seem resolutely non-political, dealing as it does with a crisis hot line for American veterans who need emergency help, usually because of PTSD, but it does not take much reading-between-the-lines to go deeper into things. First of all, The National Suicide Hotline is the only line that Veterans are given to call. (They get to press "1" and maybe go to head of the line?) Rather than concentrating on the vets, whom we don't see, we watch and hear the crisis counselors at work, and these people seem both caring and professional. The statistics we see tell us that Vets are committing suicide at the rate of nearly one per hour! (This means one more will probably have died during the time you take to watch this short.) And this is the best we can do for our Vets? The "talk" here is all, but it is enough to rivet, and we come away from the film with a deeper respect for these workers/responders but much less respect for the country that has betrayed them, and in so many ways. Note: In addition to its theatrical release, if you have HBOGO, the film is currently available there, as well as OnDemand through March 9.  

Poland / 40 mins;  Director: Aneta Kopacz;  
Producer: Adam Slesicki;  Production: Wajda Studio
With great visual poetry, 'Joanna' portrays the simple and meaningful moments in the life of her family. Diagnosed with an untreatable illness, Joanna promises her son that she will do her best to live for as long as possible. It is a story of close relationships, tenderness, love and thoughtfulness.

This must-see movie, which unveils itself only slowly, should make a wonderful testament for the boy we meet here as he grows into a man. The testament is from his mother, dying from cancer, and is captured by the filmmaker in a way that is both discreet and hugely moving -- because of the subject and the way it is handled. The boy is clearly too young to fully understand all that is happening and what it will mean. He struggles to get it but is, like all kids, interested in the here and now. Mom asks him a lot of questions that will resonate more as he grows up. These, along with her advice to him, provide a wonderful gift that he will probably treasure forever. My own mother died when I was a very young child. How I would cherish having received something like this from her! Whatever happens on Oscar night, Joanna is a keeper.

Poland / 27 mins;  Director: Tomasz Sliwinski;  
Production: Warsaw Film School
The film is a personal statement of the director and his wife, who have to deal with a very rare and incurable disease of their newborn child – the Ondine’s Curse (also known as CCHS, congenital central hypoventilation syndrome). People affected with this disease stop breathing during sleep and require lifetime mechanical ventilation on a ventilator.

We've seen a number of movies -- narrative and docs -- that cover parents and their very ill children, but few if any have quite the impact of Our Curse, in which the parents of a near newborn ask, "How do you explain to your child that every night he could die?" The parents themselves made this film, and we see them, often at the end of the day, over a glass of wine, talking to the camera with the little energy they have left. We see the child, too, as he grows a bit, and learn and watch how that ventilation tube must be inserted into the hole provided by the tracheostomy. We also get a glimpse of health care in Poland, maybe not as bad as we might have imagined, but as we also see, every bit as topsy-turvy and unfair as our own.   

Mexico / 29 mins;  Director: Gabriel Serra Argüello;  
Producers: Henner Hofmann, Liliana Pardo, Karla Bukantz 
Efrain, aka The Reaper, has worked at a slaughterhouse for 25 years. We will discover his deep relationship with death and his struggle to live.

The most beautifully, elegantly shot of any of the shorts (in any of the divisions), The Reaper also proves to have the most awful of subjects -- the slaughter of cattle, and in particular the man who gives the final death blow to each. You will know within a few frames the kind of artists that made this gorgeous film, even as you wince at what you are seeing. The combination is bold, beautiful, horrifying. We see our subject -- Efrain, the "Reaper" of the title -- at work or at home with his family, where he seems somewhat remote. He explains his job and how he feels about what he does -- "Everyone can kill; it just takes experience" -- and about his view of heaven and hell. The filmmaker keeps the actual deaths a bit distant: Behind a metal plate we see the final death throes of twitching hooves. Then, at last, we're allowed to watch that death blow. When, at the end, you get statistics, if you do the math, you'll learn that Efrain's death count of cattle--he kills around 500 per day--approaches the four million mark.

USA / 20 mins Director/Producer: J. Christian Jensen 
Thousands of souls flock to America’s Northern Plains seeking work in the oil fields. "White Earth" is the tale of an oil boom seen through unexpected eyes. Three children and an immigrant mother brave a cruel winter and explore themes of innocence, home and the American Dream.

We've been hearing for some time about the huge migration of workers to North Dakota, due to the influx of oil and the jobs suddenly available in the midst of our country's deep recession. Television news may have covered this to some extent but White Earth is the first documentary I've seen that tackles the subject. It's scattershot, to say the least, but interesting nonetheless, as it shows us a migrant father and son (we hear mostly from the son), a Latin family of five who've come to the area to earn more money and pay off their debt, and finally a young girl -- a native of the area -- who explains that "by the time I'm really old, North Dakota will be back to normal."  There is some beautiful scenery, an elegiac musical score, and enough content to at least keep us involved for the 20-minute running time. One wonders what the sudden fall in oil prices is doing to this particular community, which may get "back to normal" a lot sooner than that little girl imagines....

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