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Doc Corner: Ranking the documentary short nominees by 'How much politicians could learn from them' 

by Glenn Dunks

Last year we had fun (well, about as much fun as could be had) ranking the Best Documentary Short Subject nominees by how depressing they were. And while this year’s collection of nominees tackle subjects like racial police brutality and the opioid crisis, the five selected titles are somewhat lighter in their touch. If this category is too often (yet not exactly unfairly) criticized for being a home to just the most miserable bunch of films imaginable, this year’s nominees should at least leave audiences with a bit more hope and inspiration.

So let's instead rank the Best Documentary Short Subject nominees in order of which we would most like to force our current political leaders to watch if given the chance. Documentaries can be extremely powerful in changing people’s perception of the world around them – and while we are politically more divided now than ever, I’d like to believe that if people with power actually watched these shorts (totalling around two and a half hours) then maybe they would think twice. Maybe. Probably not. But we’d like them to try...

All the nominees are playing as a part of the 2018 OScar Nominated Short Films package currently in release through

Kate Davis and David Heilbroner

In the opening scene of this quiet yet powerful film, African American school teacher Braeion King is pulled over for a traffic violation. The howls of horror that she soon unleashes haunt the following 30 minutes; her terrified screams of “Oh my god!” as the sudden realization washes over her that she could very well become the next Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland punctuating the opening moments of Traffic Stop in ways that suggest Davis and Heilbroner’s film is going to be something far more intense like, perhaps, the documentary feature nominee Strong Island. The rest of the video plays out more or less in full throughout the short, weaved around King’s self-told story. Her raspy voice speaks of the pride she holds in herself and her work, while lamenting how one traffic stop changed her life. She comments, for instance, of how a google of her name no longer brings up modelling photographs or dance and opera performance video, but rather mug shots and police dash-cam footage. King’s story is not unique, we know this, and while Traffic Stop feels incomplete and inconclusive as to the police motivations, the sad inevitability of so much of it makes it hard to ignore and deny the problems inherent in the system. The footage is damning and disturbing, but Braeion’s story is right to be celebrated on the other side of it.

You can watch on HBO from February 19, previewing on HBO’s online platforms (Go, Now, On Demand) from the 16th

Frank Stiefel

More Mindy Alper, art is a way of expressing things that too often she holds within. With a history of mental illness, she has spent a lifetime in and out of functioning family life while on a litany of medications (and then more medications for all the damage the other medications cause to her physical body). It is through art, however, that she found a voice, initially as a drawer and then as a sculptor and painter. As lovers of film, I feel confident in saying that all you readers care deeply about art the way it can convey so much and change our perceptions, challenging and delighting us in equal measure. Watching Alder’s story unfold in Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 – the title is rather incongruous to the film, although significant as a way to point to how Alper simply thinks on a different plain to most – and I was taken by how little it can take for those who feel disenfranchised by society and shunted to its fringes to feel accepted and can have a voice through art and how important it is to make sure that whatever meagre funding it receives isn’t eradicated in a lame-brained attempt at silence, and how society’s most vulnerable can live fulfilling lives if only they weren’t so easily forgotten.

You can watch on YouTube

Thomas Lennon

There’s something to Knife Skills that I feel would have worked wonderfully as a long-form series, and which doesn’t necessarily work in the form of a short documentary. Charting the opening and running of a classic French restaurant staffed almost entirely by ex-felons, Thomas Lennon’s film covers way too much ground in too little of a runtime to really feel like we got a complete picture (of both the restaurant and the subjects). However, like Heaven is a Traffic Jam, the inspiring lessons that it has to tell nevertheless shine through. Paying one’s debt to society and venturing back into a world that has preconceived notions of who are you right down to your bones is a subject potently explored here and the struggles faced by these men and women on the road to recovery are nicely juxtaposed with the rewards offered by a new and unexpected leash on life. I only wish there was more of it.

You can watch on iTunes

Elaine McMillion Shelton and Kerrin Sheldon

The title may be winking at us about as subtly as a sledgehammer, but Heroin(e)’s story is another of surprising warmth and humanity to found within the despair of contemporary life. Exploring the lives of three women as they each play a part in battling West Virginia’s opioid crisis, the wife-and-husband Sheldon team offer an appropriately 2017 point of view and it remarkable that I’ve never seen it done before. Much of this film’s strength is in its choice of subjects, poignant choices that they are I could have watched a feature about any one of them (especially Judge Patricia Keller). But when placed side by side they offer a distinct portrait of a new face for change that society is slowly coming to recognise.

You can watch on Netflix

Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright

96 and 95 years old respectively, Edith and Eddie are newlyweds who found each other late in life, but must now struggle as forces attempt to tear them apart for, as they say, their own benefit. A sad indictment of a buckling system, Edith+Eddie is at times too observational for its own good – including entire scenes playing out in darkness with only subtitles and a distinct absence of significant individuals from the narrative – but smartly plucks at very real and identifiable issues. They may not be issues like drugs or race, but anybody who has for even a single day of their lives felt romantic love will find the story of Edith and Eddie to be one remarkable potency.

WILL WIN: Heroin(e) has the Netflix advantage that probably helped last year’s The White Helmets to victory. It’s also the most obvious choice for an Academy eager to honor stories about women.
COULD WIN: Edith+Eddie has been busy on the publicity trail (being executive produced by Cher and Steve James helps!) and will have likely had a lot of eyes on it for a story that will resonate with older viewers within the Academy.
SHOULD WIN: I have a preference for Heroin(e) and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, but they are all solid (if not exceptional) films. Now, if Ten Meter Tower had been nominated, the choice would be clear.

More on the documentary and short film categories

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Reader Comments (3)

Ten Meter Tower was awesome! My husband and I took turns trying to figure out what the people were saying up there. I think not knowing the language made it even more universally applicable. Too bad it wasn't nominated. Did it seem too simple or not cinematic enough?

February 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Cash, there were subtitles on Ten Meter Tower!

February 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn -- There weren't subtitles when I saw it, though it doesn't surprise me that they exist. It was still great!

February 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

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