‘Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary’ Review
If you still have handkerchief – and really, does anyone? – don’t forget to bring it to the Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary. This year’s crop of nominees is extremely bleak, dealing with dying children, dying mothers, suicide, moral degradation and children who have abandoned all hope for their futures. They are all rather fascinating films, in their way, but watching them all in a row is bound to be an exhausting experience.
The Nominees for Best Documentary: Short Subject
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
American veterans are committing suicide at an alarming rate, and there’s only crisis center set up exclusively to help them. In Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, the dedicated phone operators take dramatic calls from men in a state of absolute despair, and strive resolutely to save their lives and remind them that the tragedies they experienced in the Middle East were not their fault.
Director Ellen Goosenberg Kent films Crisis Hotline like a ripping TV drama of the Aaron Sorkin school, capturing emotional moments on the telephone and between co-workers, presenting the occupations of these men and women as a constant race against time. Unlike most of the other nominated documentary shorts, Crisis Hotline never seems to wallow in misery, although the backdrop of mental illness is sobering throughout the entire, involving running time.
(Unlike the other the nominees, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is currently available on HBO Go.)
Joanna is a young mother, slowly dying, trying to leave behind positive memories with her young son, Jas. She writes an empowering blog and plays with her child, batting back and forth with loving, deadpan banter. She is an inspiring woman whose efforts to preserve the good people she must eventually leave behind are nothing less than moving.
But although Aneta Kopacz skillfully depicts the heroism of Joanna’s situation, the sadness inherent to her story outweighs the many lighter moments Joanna experiences with her family before the end. The intentions may be pure but the overwhelming takeaway is melancholy. That may be a perfectly reasonable reaction to have when presented with these circumstances, but it doesn’t appear appear to be entirely what the filmmaker was pursuing with this otherwise powerful film.
If Michael Haneke, Alejandro Gonzalez-Innaritu and Lars Von Trier ever teamed up to make a film, it would probably play a lot like Our Curse. The film depicts Tomasz Sliwinski (who also directed) and Magda Hueckel, whose newborn son suffers from a rare condition that prevents him from breathing whenever he falls asleep.
Our Curse works best in the moments of brutal honesty between the parents, whose love for their child is marred by fear over how long he will live, and whether or not he will want to when he’s old enough to fully understand what his life will forever be like. Watching these two struggle to stay positive in the face of overpowering and cruel circumstance may not be the textbook definition of “inspiring,” but at least it’s honest. Brutally so.
Our Curse watches these two people develop with gradual, uncertain ease with their new roles as parents and lifelong caregivers, but the affect Sliwinski’s actual film produces is all-consuming dread. Watching them carefully swab their newborn child’s tracheotomy as the baby starts to suffocate, as they absolutely must do despite the inherent horror of the situation, is a powerful moment but also almost impossibly difficult to watch. They earn sympathy for their plight, but the presentation takes us so far into the tragedy that it seems like we never escape, even if they do.
Efrain has worked at a slaughterhouse for 25 years, in which time he has personally killed hundreds of thousands of animals. Gabriel Serra’s film examines the effect these years of violence have had on Efrain’s psyche, which – if The Reaper is any indication – amounts to a steady suicide of the soul.
Images of animal slaughter, not so much vivid as evocative, are exquisitely shot but make The Reaper an incredibly bleak experience. Efrain’s narration, which delves into feelings of guilt, responsibility and also nightmares about the cattle taking their inevitable revenge, is measured and unsettling. Is The Reaper effective? Certainly. Is it extremely hard to sit through? Yes, and it’s a byproduct of being so effective.
The White Earth may be the least bleak of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, but it’s no walk in the park either. Christian Jensen’s film focuses on the children who inhabit a town populated by oil workers, often left to their own devices as their parents work long hours away from home. These kids don’t quite understand why they have to live this way, but the acceptance they have of their lonely situation – and the very real possibility that they will one day perpetuate this social system – is sad.
Jensen’s direction, combined with his somewhat indirect narrative, presents The White Earth as a loosely woven tapestry of this town and the children who inhabit it. Unlike most of the other nominees, it intrigues the mind as much as it pulls at your emotions. It never quite coalesces into something truly impactful but it is perhaps a more nuanced and engaging viewing experience.