In an unusual turn of events, all five of the nominees for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 91st Oscars are available online – three of them free, two via Netflix. Since one of the free ones also happens to be among the very strongest films nominated at this somewhat misbegotten edition of the Academy Awards, I should very much like to suggest you take advantage. It’s not nearly as strong as the abnormally good Best Documentary (Feature) category, but the absolute minimum I can say is that every one of these is at least interesting, even if some of them are distinctly more compelling than the others.
Black Sheep (Ed Perkins & Jonathan Chinn, UK)
The official logline is misleading to the point of surrealism, and the opening suggests exactly the most pandering of what “Oscar-nominated documentary about race” implies: Cornelius Walker, whose terrified mother insisted that the family had to move from London after a high-profile hate crime, tells white people what it feels like to be the victim of racism. Even here, “most pandering” does not mean “worst”. Director Ed Perkins and cinematographer Michael Paleodimos are using the most ancient and powerful tool of cinema: the human face. And they are using it well. Walker’s first-person account, delivered steadily as he sits calmly and stares directly into the camera, is hugely involving, in large part because we’re able to watch the pain of the past flickering across his even, relaxed features. Then there’s the matter of the re-enactments, starring Kai Francis Lewis as Walker, discovering that his new home is just as full of violent anti-black racism as London could ever hope to be. Tinted blue, they don’t feel like the banal stuff of any old TV show about history; they have a dreamy (nightmarey?) impressionistic quality.
More than enough to keep me going, at any rate, up until Walker’s story takes its turn. I will not spoil it. I will say, though, that his explanation of what happens, and the particular image that accompanies it in the flashbacks, made me yelp out loud in shock and nervousness. It is not just a film about racism as a bad force in the world that must be censured; it’s about one young man being driven to conceive of himself as an outsider, and how much it costs him to adopt that broken self-image. It’s about desperation and endurance, making sad choices in order to retain one’s status as a human being in the face of awful people, for the horrible but unanswerable reason that there’s nobody else but those people to turn to. Sure, it’s fundamentally a message movie, and I have almost no use for those, but it’s a message movie that foregrounds an amazing memoir told with psychological acuity of the first order. Not just my favorite of these nominees – it’s very close to being my favorite documentary film of 2018, period.
End Game (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, USA)
The longest of the nominees, brushing right up against the limit of 40 minutes, and unconcerned about making very good use of its time. This is in some ways the “purest” film of the bunch, a bit of direct cinema in which Rob Epstein and Rebekah Ferguson operate their cameras in the most discrete, hands-off way as they spend time in a hospice unit, watching as a handful of very ill people learn that the time has come to prepare themselves emotionally for their own deaths.
It’s anti-fun, of course, though by the standards of movies about end-of-life medical care nominated for the Best Documentary Short Oscar, this is far less creepy-feeling than In Extremis, which lost here two years ago. The people who are about to die are all lucid – this is, indeed, the point of the film – and preparing for their fate with varying degrees of fear and denial, but always with a fair amount of sober dignity. It never feels like death porn, at least.
What it does feel like? I really don’t know. If the film has a message, it’s “we’re all going to die, so when your time comes, hope to face it with wisdom, courage, and calm acceptance”, and I do very much agree with that; but, like it’s a movie about watching people being told they’re about to die. Sometimes their loved ones start crying in front of them. It’s kind of unrelenting and very definitely superficial, and I really just don’t see what in God’s name the point is.
(available on Netflix)
Lifeboat (Skye Fitzgerald & Bryn Mooser, USA)
Also two years ago, there was a nominee titled 4.1 Miles – my favorite of that year, as it happens – and if I were to give you that film’s logline and this film’s logline, I wonder if there would be any way of distinguishing between them. Actually, yes – that film was about one Greek man, this film is about multiple German people. In either case, they’re patrolling the Mediterranean, watching for North African refugees whose ships have gone down, to rescue the survivors.
Extreme context-specific familiarity isn’t the biggest problem with Lifeboat, though. It’s simply not that interesting as a piece of cinema. Of all of these, this is the one that feels the most like an informative video made by a news organisation, rather than a film made by filmmakers: it gets the interviews, looks at the crowds of miserable, wet refugees, provides the data points we need, and gets out. There’s something admirable about that directness, to be sure. As long as the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean remains a living political issue (and there is, that I know of, no indication that it will cease being such an issue any time in the near future), journalism keeping the rest of us up to date on the status of that crisis is valuable, and if Oscar nominations are how that journalism remains present in the public eye, so be it.
But it’s simply not that interesting. For one thing, it’s less about process, the way that 4.1 Miles was; it’s merely sitting and watching, asking for clarification but not explanation. For another thing, it makes little or no effort to find its way into the lives of the refugees. They’re there to be pitied and rescued, but they don’t really emerge as humans. Again, valuable as journalism, sobering and all that; but great art it ain’t.
A Night at The Garden (Marshall Curry, USA)
In 1939, the German American Federation held a rally at Madison Square Garden supporting Nazi Germany, an event that was captured by news cameras. In 2017, Marshall Curry edited a few minutes of this footage for continuity, and put credits on the beginning and end of it. In 2019, it was adjudged that this was both a “film” (which I might question), and that it was worthy of awards attention (which I hotly deny). And here we are.
The idea behind this is obvious: we had pro-Nazi elements in the United States in 1939, we have pro-neo-Nazi elements in the United States in the 2010s, and thus there has indeed been a longstanding history of ethno-nationalism and pro-authoritarian sentiment in this country. And to this I can only say: well, yeah? The film offers absolutely no context, grounding, or anything other than seven minutes of watching pro-Nazi speeches, accompanied by very monotonously grim music by James Baxter. Its entire purpose is to show us that normal Americans could be roused to cheers by Fascist speeches, and I’m sure that is a terrible shock for many people; certainly, every positive review of the film I’ve seen starts from the point “can you believe that…”. But the notion that there were Americans who supported Nazism in 1939 (or 1940, or 1941) isn’t exactly a lost bit of history, and even the images of this rally have made the rounds before. The image of George Washington, surrounded by swastikas, is one I’ve seen in multiple places. It’s startling, undoubtedly, but it’s not news. And if this film isn’t news, I don’t know what it’s for, why it’s nominated for an Oscar, or even whether it deserves to be called a “short film”. It would be perfectly adequate DVD extra, or short video essay supporting a news story, but that’s absolutely as far as I can imagine taking it.
Period. End of Sentence. (Rayka Zehtabchi & Melissa Berton, USA)
There are two movies sharing these 26 minutes, and they’re so very similar that I can totally understand why somebody might think they fit together. The first is a story about several women in a small town in India learning how to operate a machine that mass produces menstrual pads. In so doing, and more to the point, in speaking openly about their experience, they are helping to break down that country’s taboos about discussing female biological needs. The second film is an advertisement for The Pad Project, the organisation that installed the machine in question, an advocacy group fighting anti-menstruation bigotry in cultures where it is considered a foulness that renders teen girls unfit for society.
Setting aside the value of that advocacy, the whole “documentary film that’s an ad for a charity” trend is one that I view without much enthusiasm, and Period. End of Sentence. is a great example of why. The story of the townswomen is absolutely fascinating: seeing them grapple with their own internalised discomfort as they fight for basic dignity and rights is the stuff of fine character-based documentary storytelling, and the film works both as a social issue story and as a snapshot of a specific place undergoing a specific pressure. Needing to do the work of The Pad Project invariably interferes with that, whether it’s because watching the machine work is less interesting than hearing from the people in the film, or because the last five minutes are so wildly disjointed from everything else that went before.
But there is a bit of a twist. The film was made by high school students. And it is, to be sure, the kind of film that needs to be qualified by pointing out that it was made by high school students. Still and all, they’re terribly gifted high school students, and while an Oscar nomination (and if my guess is right, an Oscar win) is probably in excess of what they’ve actually achieved here, it’s a stunningly polished work by those standards.
(available on Netflix)