Presenting brief reviews of the five films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject, ranked from my favorite to least-favorite.
Do Not Split (Anders Hammer, Norway/USA)
There’s a certain problem of documentary filmmaking that probably has existed as long as documentaries themselves, but it’s felt to me like it’s only become really prominent in the last decade or so: the Great Footage, Badly Assembled movie. Not all of these are boots-on-the-ground studies of political protests, and not all films about political protests have this problem, but between things like Winter on Fire in 2016 and Whose Streets? in 2017, they seem unusually sensitive to it.
And so it is with Do Not Split, a 35-minute movie about the 2019-’20 protests in Hong Kong against the overreach of the mainland Chinese government that is, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, a jaw-dropping compendium of protest footage (and it’s right up-to-the-minute, as well, stopping months into the COVID-19 pandemic that functionally shut the protests down). Loosely organising his material around student activist Joey Siu, director-cameraman Anders Hammer has captured the chaos on the streets of Hong Kong with wonderfully nauseating intensity. It’s a ragged, ugly film, full of hot digital images that shudder badly with the force of the air itself seeming to explode with rage; Hammer leaves absolutely no doubt, ever, as to what side of the protests he agrees with, but mostly he’s attempting to present a shock of violence all around us, demonstrating the danger and chaos involved in the protester’s attempts to safeguard democracy.
That’s not nothing, but the question I have is: is it enough? “Safeguard democracy” is pretty much the closest we’ll ever get to context throughout those 35 minutes; while the film tries to keep us situated with title cards explaining dates and sometimes location (these cards are, for the record, terrible – aqua letters that are somewhat hard to make out against black backdrops), it’s mostly just a record of what Hammer saw than an attempt to explain what, actually is happening, beyond passionate sloganeering. As anything other than reportage, this makes Do Not Split frustrating, but it goes beyond this: because ultimately, all we’re looking at is masked protestors squaring off against masked cops in high-contrast handheld video, and it’s very shortly into the film that it starts to become repetitious. Basically, it feels like Hammer has provided us with the raw material for a news report on the protests, the kind of footage that wows and troubles you for 30 seconds on television or Twitter as it fleshes out an accompanying story. But is it really a documentary film? Objectively yes, of course, but at a certain point I couldn’t shape the feeling that Do Not Split was a lot of sound and fury and absolutely no explaining things about the complicated political situation between Hong Kong and China that I didn’t already know, or didn’t have to look up afterwards. Still, the sheer ragged force of the footage packs a hell of a wallop.
A Love Song for Latasha (Sophia Nahi Allison, USA)
15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed in March, 1991, by Los Angeles shopkeeper Soon Ja Du. Her death, which occurred less than two weeks after the beating of Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles police department, would later be considered one of the flash points that led to the 1992 riots in that city, after Du received the lightest possible sentence on a conviction for voluntary manslaughter. This is, just to be clear, not what A Love Song for Latasha is about.
Instead, the film takes the form of a testimonial by the people who knew her as a child, mostly her cousin Shinese Harlins and best friend Tybie O’Bard. And quite an ephemeral, loose testimonial it is, at that, taking the form of an impressionistic collage of moments that were never recorded, but have since been constructed through animation and re-enactments on faux-VHS tape, complete with bursts of static perfectly timed to contribute to the sense of even this artificial history being lost in the moment of making it. That’s the film’s core argument, really: that some histories get recorded and passed down “officially”, and some simply fall through the cracks, only remembered by the people who were there. And so, director Sophia Nahli Allison, in assembling the film, is trying to give a kind of visual poetic life to the feelings that have only existed in Harlins and O’Bard’s minds till now.
It’s a very lovely, inchoate thing; at 19 minutes, it would be impossible to say that A Love Song for Latasha outstays its welcome, but it doesn’t make particularly efficient use of its time. But what would “efficient” even mean here? We are, in effective, listening to monologues that are trying in real time to fumble to some kind of meaning, and the images fumble right along with them. It’s messy, but the right kind of purposefully messy. And when it’s done, what we’ve learned has nothing to do with the riots or with Latasha’s place in history; it’s just a little series of memories about a girl who died horribly young from people who loved her. And that’s a really remarkable thing for it to be.
(Available on Netflix)
Colette (Anthony Giacchino, USA)
Colette Marin-Catherine is an indisputably fascinating documentary subject, a nonogenarian who was, as a teenager, active in the French Resistance, and serves today as a prickly connection to history, unwilling to play the nice sentimental grandma-lady with stories to tell when she can smell that you’re full of bullshit. And I do somewhat wonder if she can tell how much the makers of Colette are full of bullshit. The movie is a sort of Werner Herzogian experiment in trying to generate drama artificially: Luci Fouble, a college history student, has decided that it would be a very clever thing for Marin-Catherine to return to Germany for the first time since Those Days, to visit the ruins of the concentration camp where her older brother was killed by the Nazis. Anthony Giacchino, whose documentary career runs the gamut from serious investigations into political history all the way to the DVD special features for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, followed along with his camera. As I understand it, the whole shebang was made to be a bonus feature in a French Resistance-themed entry in the Medal of Honor video game series.
And from this, we learn… something? I would be hard-pressed to say what, exactly. Not, a little bit to my surprise, all that much about the Resistance, and that seems to be a deliberate choice, though whether it’s Giacchino’s or Fouble’s, I couldn’t tell you. Both of them seem a bit more interested in negotiating Marin-Catherine into a place where she can have a great dramatic confrontation with her past and her loss, and this frankly does not seem to me a worthy subject of art. For one thing, Marin-Catherine herself seems a little bit dubious about the whole exchanging, pointing out rather adroitly that she has spent her entire life trying not to be consumed by these memories, which is hardly what the ideal of “Never Forget” is pointing towards. For another thing, the revelation that very old women, when reminded of death and pain that have haunted their lives, will be sad, is simply not that shocking. And Giacchino’s mixture of interview footage with WWII stock footage is doing nothing to freshen things up.
Still, Marin-Catherine herself is such a powerful personality, I cannot pretend that Colette doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, perhaps, as the film it was designed to be, but as a study of a woman battering back ghosts with steel will and admirable irritability, it’s a pretty fantastic character study, even if its value as Resistance history and reminder of the inhuman vulgarity of the Nazi extermination camps is rather considerably lower.
Hunger Ward (Skye Fitzgerald, USA)
If one were to accuse Hunger Ward of being nothing but 40 minutes of the most punishing kind of misery porn, I don’t know what on earth the filmmakers could possibly say to answer that criticism. Herein, we have a film about a doctor, Aida Alsadeeq, and a nurse, Mekkia Mahdi, who work in children’s healthcare facilities in war-ravaged Yemen, where they attempt to find some way of nourishing children who are mere heartbeats away from dying of starvation.
The question of why this would be something we had ought to spend 40 minutes watching is one that director Skye Fitzgerald is prepared for: the movie ends with a call to action, advising us how to contribute food and resources to organisations attempting to alleviate child starvation in Yemen. And this comes directly after title cards very bluntly observing that the United States, and basically all of the rest of the First World as well, is directly complicit in the destruction of Yemen that has resulted in these children starving. And that of course after 37 minutes of Fitzgerald’s camera watching these children from a respectful, non-leering distance that still manages to collect an array of horrors that can hardly be described.
In other words: it’s a straight-up guilt-trip, made for the kind of bourgeois audiences who do things like bother watching the films nominated for Best Short Documentary at the Oscars, or even better the people who nominate films for said award. As such, I hardly think you can deny that there’s a hint, or much more than a hint, of bald-faced exploitation going on here, though at least Hunger Ward remains tactfully removed from its tiny, fragile subjects enough that it’s never crass, much like Fitzgerald’s last Oscar nominee, Lifeboat in 2018, cares more about observing than editorialising. Still, there’s an awfully fine line between trying to raise awareness and simply wallowing in the emaciated bodies of brown children for the sheer pleasure of giving complacent Western whites a good jolt of prurient sadness, and Hunger Ward making an awfully big show of dancing right on the edge of that line. Like, obviously, yes, if you’re in a position to contribute to the material welfare of Yemeni children, it’s a good thing to do (and I have no idea, to be clear, if the charity Hunger Ward promotes is actually a good way to do that); and I’ll even give the film props for being the only one of these five movies to have a solid narrative construction built around two well-defined protagonists, rather than a pile of footage dumped artless atop us. But there’s really no shame in skipping this one.
(Available on Pluto TV and elsewhere)
A Concerto Is a Conversation (Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, USA)
No doubt it comes from a sincere place: composer Kris Bowers, probably best known for scoring the 2018 film Green Book and the 2020 television series Bridgerton, is premiering a new concerto at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and in preparing for doing so, he is struck by a certain degree of proud self-doubt that, as an African-American man, he “belongs” in the white world of classical music. So he sketches out a little history by chatting with his grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr, about the generational struggle to succeed in the face of oppression and racism.
That’s all well and good, and Horace, recently diagnosed with cancer and amply in the mood to do some reflecting, is a miraculous interview subject, ready with stories and ideas about the changing culture around him throughout his long life. This does not prevent A Concerto Is a Conversation from being just disastrously ill-made. To begin with, while I’ve just sketched out a pretty straightforward thematic throughline, I’m doing a lot more of the work to make that clear than the film is: it’s so slight at 13 minutes that it can’t even find room to make connections itself, and so just spins out anecdotes, and hopes for the best. That’s bad. Even worse, it is horribly edited, with the conversation between grandfather and grandson taking the form of very tight close-ups on each of their faces, centered in frame and pinned in an excruciatingly shallow focus, as they stare directly into the lens. And it ping-pongs between these shots with arrhythmic jagging that seems impossible to come someone who has to think about rhythm as a function of composing music, as Bowers does. In particular, whenever he acknowledges something his grandfather says or interjects, his face cuts in curtly, leaving microscopic little hiccups in the ambient sound and killing the lingering echoes of words. It’s very nearly unwatchable. And to be fair, this isn’t the only thing the film does – it uses photographs, old home movies, stock footage of Kris’s rising career, and so on – and that’s at least worked into the film with banal neutrality. But the absolute best that can be said for the heart-to-heart that gives the film its soul is that it feels very much like a profoundly unsatisfying and technically not-quite-there Zoom call, with unusually polished lighting and cinematography, and my God, as down as I’ve been on 2020, it was worse than I thought if we’re to the point that we’re pursuing that as an aesthetic.