BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Oh, how I’ve come to love this category. Documentaries have always been a favorite of mine and once I started to become an Oscar completist, looping in these Documentary Shorts unlocked another level of insight into subjects that may not be meaty enough to fill out a feature length endeavor but can achieve a great power in a brisk run time. However, I’ve noticed that “short” is starting to feel more like “expedient” and that isn’t the same thing and a few of the films this year felt like they were in a gray space between short and feature length and were forced to be trimmed to qualify in this category. Cohesion is beginning to get sacrificed and I’m having trouble easily finding the narrative thread…or at least the general concept.
Colette (Directed by Anthony Giacchino)
Synopsis: Resistance took courage in Nazi-occupied France. 75 years later, facing one’s ghosts may take even more.
Review: If given the choice, I prefer to get any documentary about Holocaust out of the way first because I know it will take an emotional toll on me and this short on survivor Colette Marin-Catherine was the first one I crossed off my list. A moving study of the 90-year old who fought in the French resistance and hasn’t been back to Germany since making a pledge never to return after her brother was killed in a concentration camp, Colette could bend under the weight of its sentimentality but refuses to wallow in any sort of sadness. As Colette travels to Germany with a young student that has been researching her life, there are many emotional milestones met and the expected bouts of unbearable sadness at confronting the site of such terrible acts of horror. Colette is so matter-of-fact in her way of speaking and director Anthony Giacchino is almost resolute in not allowing his film to become just about re-opening old wounds, that the short is more about moving through the pain of the past and into healing.
A Concerto is a Conversation (Directed by Kris Bowers & Ben Proudfoot)
Synopsis: A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Review: Every year I tend to forget that The New York Times produces a great series of documentaries available on YouTube (Op-Docs) and really I have no business letting this slip my mind seeing how often they wind up getting nominated for an Oscar. This year the nominee is this super short piece on Kris Bowers (who also co-directed), a jazz-pianist readying a new concerto while at the same time speaking to his terminally ill grandfather, a self-made business owner, about how he made a life for himself during a period of civil unrest and systemic racism. Using the documentary format to retrace the history of his family, Bowers has a dynamite subject in his amiable grandfather but their “conversation” comes in the form of both men speaking direct to camera…so it feels like they are connecting with us but not each other.
A Love Song for Latasha (Directed by Sophia Nahli Allison)
Synopsis: A dreamlike portrait of a vibrant 15-year-old girl whose shooting death sparks the 1992 L.A. Riots.
Review: After spending the last year watching the video of George Floyd being murdered by the now convicted police officer Derek Chauvin (not to mention countless other similar videos) over and over again on the news, I guess you could say it was a small relief not to have the video of the 1991 shooting death of Latasha Harlins shown in a similar fashion during director Sophia Nahli Allison’s documentary A Love Song for Latasha. The murder of the teen was a catalyst for the uprising in LA and her death is an important part of a lengthier story to be told, but without any other footage of Latasha to show, Allison’s film is filled with incongruous images and animation that don’t achieve the type of impact I felt this life warranted. The ‘love song’ of the title is related to viewers as an obtuse interpretation of Latasha’s life and dreams up until that point but somehow it was never able to paint in picture in my mind or, sadly, heart.
Do Not Split (Directed by Anders Hammer)
Synopsis: The story of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, told through a series of demonstrations by local protestors that escalate into conflict when highly armed police appear on the scene.
Review: Here’s a prime example of what I was talking about in my opening paragraph — a documentary that lacks cohesion because of its editing and lack of context. To understand where this short is coming from you need to have some (actually, quite a lot) of understanding on the conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China and the protests that boiled over in 2019. For most of director Anders Hammer’s film, the scenes are just a randomly assembled jumble of protests, on-screen facts, interviews with heavily masked/concealed fighters for the cause, and it’s all hard to follow — even if you are aware of what was happening there. To a viewer, all we’re seeing is people running toward armed police who shoot tear gas at them, only to turn around and run away. Little extra is added beyond that and when the protestors eventually barricade themselves away from the police and start fires, images of a modern day Les Misérables began to dance in my head. It was only when the events began to get to more recent months that Hammer found some meter to it all, and that’s mostly because the pandemic stymied the protests from returning, though they had ceased long before the world was in global lockdown having seen the writing on the wall concerning COVID-19. Truth be told, the film lost my interest even further back.
Hunger Ward (Directed by Skye Fitzgerald)
Synopsis: Filmed from inside two of the most active therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen documenting two female health care workers fighting to thwart the spread of starvation against the backdrop of a forgotten war.
Review: Every year it feels like there is one documentary or documentary short that is almost painfully hard to watch and Hunger Ward is by far the toughest sit of the nominees this round. Detailing the epidemic of the childhood famine in Yemen, director Skye Fitzgerald (previously nominated in this category in 2018 for Lifeboat) follows a doctor and a nurse in two different hospitals treating malnourished children. Poverty, overpopulation, and the devastation of war has left the children suffering the consequences and Fitzgerald and his crew don’t spare viewers an up close look at their tiny weak bodies, sunken chests, and hollow cheeks. In two excruciating scenes, we watch as hospital staff try (and fail) to revive children as their families cry howling sobs around them and in the halls. It would be easy for Fitzgerald to give the mourners some space or the staff who are also deeply affected by each loss room to mourn as humans must…but he keeps his camera focused and following so we aren’t spared the luxury of looking away. While not an eye-opening film if you’ve kept up on current events, hopefully it doesn’t allow people in power the chance to blink in the face of opportunities to make a difference.
Final Thoughts: This one could go many different ways and so I’m torn, honestly. Sadly, I feel like we have to cross Hunger Ward off the list because I don’t think voters will watch the film due to its subject matter. I also think Do Not Split can definitely be counted out seeing that it’s weaker when compared to all the other entries, I’m honestly surprised this landed in the top selections when looking at potential nominees that were passed over. If we were voting ten years ago, I might hedge some bets on Colette due to the subject matter and emotional appeal of the voting body but am more inclined to say that A Love Song for Latasha and A Concerto is a Conversation will have a greater hold over this new Academy which grows more diverse year over year. A Love Song For Latasha could stand out because of the politicized nature of the last year and the protests we’ve seen surrounding Black Lives Matter; her story has seeds of that movement that voters may want to reward. On the other hand, A Concerto is a Conversation feels like a solid choice for its examination of race through an intergenerational lens and also because it doesn’t resort to easy theatrics to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience.