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Movie Review: Best Documentary Short films, 2019 Edition
78%Overall Score

The nominees for Best Documentary Short are narrowed down from a list of over 100 qualifying candidates. In line with the Academy’s tendencies in this category, the five contenders are socially conscious, and persistently depressing. While a mixed bag in terms of quality, these docs offer valuable insights into modern difficulties in the U.S. and abroad.

 

End Game – directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Endgame explorse two hospice facilities in San Francisco servicing terminally ill patients. The film peaks into the experiences of a number of different people, and their families, as they reckon with how they want to live out the rest of their lives. Deeply empathetic, the film has a holistic appreciation of the widespread emotional toll involved in these types of situations, but its tone remains refreshingly sober; a doctor who lost several limbs in a teenage accident is presented here as the exemplary proponent of this forthright approach. Epstein and Freidman are no strangers to documenting the sick; in fact, it was their film on AIDS that won them the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature back in 1989. Endgame is emotionally mature its subjects, in a way that only seasoned documentarians could properly convey, yet unignorable factors such as the cost of healthcare and the relative inaccessibility of medical services is a major, inexcusable blind spot.

Black Sheep – directed by Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn

Black Sheep has impressive scope despite only telling the story of a single young man. Filmed like a testimony, Perkins weaves interview with re-enactment in order to tell the story of Cornelius Walker, a Londoner of Nigerian descent whose parents move the family out of the city after their neighbor is killed on his way home from school. An older, remorseful Walker is the subject of the interview, and he’s captured at an intimate close-range, kept center frame so that all of his emotional twists and turns are on full display. After being harassed and bullied by a gang of teen racists, Walker goes to extraordinary lengths to blend in and “make friends with monsters,” as he later admits. This fearful assimilation comes in the form of bleaching his skin, getting bright blue contacts, and later, participating in acts of racial violence. In a short 27 minutes, Walker’s story demonstrates how bigotry compounds into self-loathing and violence, and the accompanying dramatic re-enactments are both complementary in heightening the retrospective anguish, and surprisingly moving in their artistry.

A Night at the Garden – directed by Marshall Curry

In February of 1939, a Nazi rally drew some 200,000 Americans to Madison Square Garden in an unprecedented salute to white supremacy and Adolf Hitler. Clocking in at a slim 7 minutes (the shortest documentary to be nominated in this category), director Marshall Curry gathered pieces of footage from this shocking event, which should draw clear parallels to the events of Charlottesville and our current anti-immigrant xenophobia.

The film is no-frills in execution, relying on the power of its images and a few expository bookends in the form of title cards. It’s horrifying stuff, and Curry is attuned to how surreal and familiar the experience should feel to modern audiences. On the other hand, there’s a lack of creative involvement here that reduces the film to being a well-timed resuscitation of archival footage.

Period. End of Sentence. – directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton

Driven by the discovery of countless girls and women dropping out of school because they’re ashamed of their periods, a group of high school students in LA teamed up with director Rayka Zehtabchi to produce Period. End of Sentence. The documentary functions primarily as an issue awareness project, taking audiences to a village in rural India where talk of menstruation is considered taboo. A handful of local woman team up with the inventor of a machine that creates menstrual pads to provide affordable products for those embarrassed and unable to access effective means of sanitation. These women are economically empowered by the profits they reap from their newfound business, creating a domino effect of positive change for their community.

Lifeboat – directed by Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser

Footage of volunteers in dust masks gathering dead bodies from the shores of a beach in North Africa is the gut-punch opening scene of Skye Fitzgerald’s documentary on the ongoing refugee crisis. Told from the perspective of a group of German volunteers who rescue people stuck on sinking rafts in the middle of the ocean, this distressing documentary draws attention to the harrowing stories of migrants fleeing inhuman conditions in places like Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali. The first half of the film focuses on the rescue crew, their protocol and the challenges they face on the job, while the second half pivots into a series of interviews with some rescued individuals. The subject matter is extraordinarily grim, and Fitzgerald offers us a privileged perspective into the lives of those in extreme crisis. There’s not much in terms of explanation aside from occasional title card and testimony from the documentary subjects, giving the documentary a slighter, experiential quality that would otherwise be filled out in a feature-length film.

And the Oscar goes to…

I’m inclined to give the edge to the veteran documentarians of the bunch, which would have the most polished and intellectual doc of the group – End Game – taking gold. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Sheep or Lifeboat sneaks in for the win, given the timely topics these docs explore. Personally my vote goes to Black Sheep, which offers so much from within the parameters of a personal narrative, without leaving you unfulfilled or wanting for more.

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