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.
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.
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.
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.
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