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Doc Corner: Ranking the Documentary Short Nominees from Least to Most Depressing

The annual joke is that the Best Documentary Short category is routinely the most depressing, miserable, down-right soul-crushing category of any given list of Oscar nominees. Often it is for very good reason: last year’s subjects included the Ebola plague, capital punishment, honor killings and the Holocaust. This years’ nominees are perhaps a little bit lighter if just for the slim offerings of a happy ending offered up by a few. Nevertheless, we’re going to rank them from least to most depressing because I just watched the movie about end-of-life termination and I need some levity.

With four of the nominees widely available online as well as through the Oscar Nominated Shorts packages currently in limited release and on iTunes, there’s no reason to not have seen them before Oscar night!


Not Depressing: JOE’S VIOLIN
Nominees: Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
Review: A Polish Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, donates his 70-year-old violin to an instrument drive that finds new homes within the school system for unused musical instruments. Charting not just Joseph’s experiences with WWII, but also his prized violin and the 13-year-old Bronx student who is gifted the instrument through the Mr. Holland’s Opus foundation, Joe’s Violin offers the required level of misty-eyed spark culminating with a suitably touching meeting between the two violinists. Feels like a pilot for a TV series charting multiple instruments – and, truly, I would watch – but I would have liked its discussions on the importance of music to those across Europe in WWII to be expanded upon. It’s charming and in a field that often errs less towards feel-good, it should be popular with voters.

Watch Joe’s Violin on YouTube.

Depressing at First, and Then Not As Depressing: WATANI – MY HOMELAND
Nominees: Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis
Review: If you watch documentaries regularly then you are probably familiar with stories like these, but this is the first I have seen about the specific cases of Syrian refugees emigrating to Germany. Beginning with the destruction of the home in Aleppo of a Free Syrian Army commander, before jumping forward to their forced migration of his family to Germany after he is kidnapping by ISIS, Watani: My Homeland offers a rare happy ending of sorts for a doc about the Syria crisis. Juxtaposing the mother’s unhappiness with that of her children’s joy at their new home absent of shelling and rubble is particularly rich with the ghostly memory of the father, and his words of regret at destroying his children’s home and future lingering over them. It’s just one story, but it is one I am glad to have witnessed.

Yeah, Depressing: THE WHITE HELMETS
Nominees: Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natesegara
Review: Should a film address controversies about its subjects? That’s the biggest question left lingering after watching The White Helmets. This documentary about the estimated 3000 heroes of the Syrian Civil War known as The White Helmets is perhaps not the place to address the accusations against the humanitarian organisation – some say the campaign against them is another tactic by the Russians to destabilize their influence and efforts – but it feels incomplete without it. If, like me, you have a vague understanding of the subject, you will likely find the subject niggling at the back of your mind. The footage captured is often extraordinary, and it’s no wonder why George Clooney wants to make a film about them, but The White Helmets feels like a missed opportunity. It's like reading an article and thinking the most interesting part wasn't even address.

Watch The White Helmets on Netflix.

Oh God, That’s So Depressing: 4.1 MILES
Nominee: Daphne Matziaraki
Review: If you don’t have two hours for the excellent documentary feature nominee Fire at Sea, then this short on the almost exact same subject will leave no less of an impression. Shifting the camera to Lesbos, Greek-born filmmaker Matziaraki’s camera captures the endless stream of refugees that have set across the Mediterranean in search of safety and access to Europe through the eyes of a coast guard whose daily mission it is to save them. While it lacks the formal ingenuity that Fire at Sea’s feature length allows, 4.1 Miles nonetheless captures with uneditorialized and often harrowing honesty the unfolding tragedy and the human faces behind it.

Watch 4.1 Miles at The New York Times.

So Depressing. Like, the Most Depressing: EXTREMIS
Nominee: Dan Krauss
Review: The realities of death are thrust to the surface in Dan Krauss’ documentary that eschews cheap sentimentality for an honest portrayal on the sort of conversations that happen each and every day in hospitals - in this case one in Oakland with its high number of African American patients. Focusing in on two of them and their doctor, Extremis bluntly asks its audience to weight their own personal and ethical beliefs, the pros and cons if you want to be crass, of keeping a loved one on life support in the face of extreme odds. Powerful and potent, Krauss’ unobtrusive camera nonetheless captures raw emotions.

Watch Extremis on Netflix.

As for predictions?

WILL WIN: Joe’s Violin (The Lady in Number 6 won, and this is much better)
COULD WIN: The White Helmets (Easy Netflix availability makes me think it’s very likely)
SHOULD WIN: 4.1 Miles or Extremis

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Reader Comments (10)

Watching these this weekend. Thanks for the (somewhat depressing) preview.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

i love love love this angle for a ranking. I'm going to watch all of these this week.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Lol I love this ranking but it makes one wonder if that's all they ever respond to in this category. Every once in a while, we'll get a weirdo character piece.

Year after year tho, it's bleak af.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

So your SHOULD WIN picks are for the two most depressing? Is this category about punishment, then?!

Thanks for sharing the online links - it feels like the first time a majority of these nominees are easily available to watch in Sydney before the Oscars so I will try to get to them this week.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Thanks for this Glenn... will definitely catch up on some of these given they are so accessible. I was considering seeing them at the theater but they split the doc shorts into 2 programs making it a bit costly.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrG

Don't watch them all in one week Nathaniel! You will be so depressed that you won't be able to function! I have only seen The White Helmets. That was two weeks ago. I am still recovering!

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEz

I've actually seen all these! And Joe's Violin was excellent. It deserves to win. Of the 3 refugee films, I think I liked White Helmets the best, but they were all good (4.1 Miles was heartbreaking but a little formless as a piece of cinema). Extremis was well-made but can't compete with the rest.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

I have seen all of these now but for Watani and I could see any of them winning. I personally thought Joe's Violin and White Helmets were the best ones, though. Extremis was great in some ways but it felt somehow incomplete to me. My least favorite was 4.1 miles. It enraged me (which i think is part of the point obviously) but I also had so many questions...i guess that's often the problem with shorts. you're left wanting to know more.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I maintain that four of these being so easily available to view is the reason they got nominated. Only FRAME 394 was available to view online before the nominations and didn't make it to the final five (it also wasn't very good).

I think my issue with Joe's Violin is that there's so many interesting tangents to that story, and I'm not exactly sure the one the filmmakers went with is the most interesting? It's definitely charming though and, at least unlike the others, it wasn't exactly sad (well, not in a bad way, anyway). I welled up for sure.

DrG, I love that they release them in cinemas, but the way they do it seems a bit confusing to me. Why aren't all the docs together? Sure, it might add up to three hours, but then you end up handing over money to see two short films. Maybe a single ticket stub should get you into all the doc sessions? I dunno. I guess it maximises their profit, though. And it's been so great to see these compilations make money every year when people say nobody cares about them and should be booted from the telecast.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn, thanks for the hard work on this article. Smart way to organize. When you watch the doc shorts, it's always a question of whether or not they're voting for the story or the filmmaking. I found White Helmets very effective and moving of course, but then the economy and focus of Extremis is perhaps better? Such devotion to filmmaking across the board. These are people on the front lines in a very moving way.

February 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEric

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