This year’s nominees for Best Documentary Short may focus on different subjects, but they all have one very important goal in mind: to make you cry until you very literally don’t have any more fluid left in your body. From stories about dying people, to holocaust survivors, to children living in the midst of war, these well-crafted true stories are guaranteed to make you feel feelings.
4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki
Bleak and horrifying from beginning to end, 4.1 Miles gives us a glimpse into the life of the Greek Coast Guard as they pull Turkish refugees out of the water outside of the island of Lesbos. From morning until night, the coast guard comes to the aid of thousands of people as they attempt to escape war. Some don’t make the journey through the rough and freezing waters. The frantic, handheld camera work truly portrays the chaos both the refugees and coast guard is facing. As much as you want to look away when an infant gets flipped upside down so that the water will pour out of the baby’s throat, the camera is unwavering. There’s no central narrative, so it’s simply a harsh and honest look into the steps people must take to survive.
Extremis, directed by Dan Krauss
The Netflix produced Extremis is a drive by into the world of the ICU, where patients and families must choose whether or not they are going to cut life support. Some choose to have their loved ones hooked up to machines, while others prefer to say their goodbyes now. Regardless of the story being told, this will leave you thinking about your own parents and loved ones. Expertly edited, Extremis gives you a good heaping of both sides: there are the doctors who know a patient’s time is up, and the families who must deal with decision-making. It’s a film that highlights the quiet moments, from family members solemnly singing hymns to doctors whispering while making tough decisions. My keyboard is wet. I never want to watch this movie again.
Joe’s Violin, directed by Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
You know things are looking rough when a film about a holocaust survivor seems like a light family romp. This doc focuses on a New York City program that asked people to donate their old instruments to schools in order to spur children’s interest in music. Joe, a holocaust survivor who was sent to a Russian labor camp when he was 17, decides to donate the old violin he bought right after the war. A young girl from the Bronx is gifted the instrument and they get the chance to meet, as well as to talk about the power of music and perseverance. It’s incredibly touching. A good mix of history, culture, and care, Joe’s Violin is a delightful reminder that simplest things can change someone’s life.
The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
This short follows the story of the White Helmets / Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer group made up of citizens who carry out search and rescue operations. There are White Helmets in a lot of different areas of Syria, but this doc focuses on the group working in Aleppo to free people from bombed out buildings. It’s obviously an inspiring documentary; these selfless, wildly untrained people are putting their lives at risk every time they crawl into a collapsed building. Still, what truly stood out to me about The White Helmets was the brash honesty of the piece. The interviews are done in a brightly lit room, straight on, so the audience is forced to look each member of the White Helmets in the eye while they talk about the horrors of what’s going on in their country. Spliced with terrifying and all too real footage, if you didn’t care what was going on in Aleppo before, you’ll have no choice but to care after seeing this.
Watani: My Homeland, directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis
We’re staying on the Syria train with Watani: My Homeland, a story about a family who flees from Syria to Germany after the father/husband is captured by ISIS. Out of all the Oscar nominated documentaries I’ve watched, this one is the most sprawling. Starting out in war-torn Syria and ending up in a quiet neighborhood in Germany, this short doc crams a ton of different feelings into 40 minutes. You get to see a family change from putting the revolution first (above themselves, above their children), to realizing they can no longer continue to live in fear and must leave. It’s heartbreaking to watch as the children leave everything they know and love behind, not knowing whether they’ll ever see their father again, but this short manages to balance that with the joy of their newfound freedom in Germany. They have a house, the kids go to school, they don’t have to worry about bombs on a regular basis. While the basis of the story is beyond sad, there is a glimmer of optimism that highlights their strength.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
If the Oscars were based on what I feel in my heart, I would probably give it to Extremis. Any short that can elicit that much emotion in such a short amount of time is obviously doing something right, but to be honest, I was far more impressed with Watani: My Homeland. It’s a short that managed to pack the emotion of a feature length documentary, without sacrificing small moments of beauty.