Review: 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Documentary
Documentaries rarely shy away from telling the truth. This year's crop are especially attuned to the truth of our current world, with three stories focusing on the crisis in Syria, one focusing on remembering the Holocaust, and another about one of the most difficult times in the healthcare system for doctors and patients alike. This year's nominees are thought provoking and emotional gut punches of the human condition in our modern world, where old regimes and borders and the ideas they attempt to constrain may prevent us from truly understanding the struggles of our fellow man.
4.1 Miles (Director: Daphne Matziaraki)
4.1 Miles follows a taxed Coast Guard captain, his unit, and their community on a Greek Isle near the international waters between Turkey and Greece. It’s a harrowing look at the rescue of several makeshift boats, overfilled with refugees from Syria and its neighbors. The film, produced by the New York Times, contextualizes the flight of the refugees in their deepest moment of need, and de-politicizes the first responders, showing them as reactionary humans respond to the job in front of them. Over two rescues, we see the chaos and confusion that infuses their lives, while short vignettes offshore voice the strain and concern of residents. This is all brought together in a final sequence where citizens from the town stream to the docks after a catastrophic capsizing of a boat, and the deep toll the event takes on the Coast Guard Captain.
Extremis (Director: Dan Krauss)
Explorations of medical units and their teams are fairly standard documentary fare; Extremis sets itself apart by detailing an End Of Life care unit, where patients have little hope of substantive long term recovery. The story focuses on Dr. Jessica Zitter, whose early experiences as a medical student lead her to have an eye for patient care that is realistic to the patient's survival. Her bedside manner is factually concise, but pragmatic; she works to be the voice of the patient when they can’t use their own. She’s never at odds with the patients' families, but is often at odds with other staff members acting administratively and cumbersomely in the direction of empathy. The questions of end of life care feel prescient in the United States, with the growing costs of long term health care and the recent appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, whose upcoming tenure will be marked by questions of what the future of healthcare holds.
Joe’s Violin (Directors: Kahane Cooperman, Raphaela Neihausen)
After 70 years, a Holocaust survivor chooses to depart with his long held prized possession, a violin he purchased shortly after being freed from a Siberian work camp. Working with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, the violin is provided to a school for girls that only accepts refugees and immigrant student, and that focuses on musical education throughout the curriculum. The violin is provided to a star musical pupil, and the first meeting between Joseph Feingold and Brianna Perez is featured. During this meeting, Brianna plays a song that was Joseph’s source of light thru his trials. The story is intercut with tales of Joseph’s time in the labor camps, and the fate of his family during the Holocaust, as well as Brianna’s progress and skills with the violin and her dream to become a music teacher.
The White Helmets (Director: Orlando von Einsiedel)
In the city of Aleppo, crews of volunteers work to rescue victims of Russian and loyalist bombings. They work, staying neutral in the fight, rushing into active war zones and risking their lives to uncover rubble and look for signs of life. The White Helmets follows a crew who deploys to Turkey for a 30 day training period, all the while receiving updates from back home of their neighborhood and the danger it’s in. The story is bookended by the tale of the miracle baby they pull from a bombed out building - a boy barely a week old who survived for hours on his own. The rescuers are deeply affected by the survival of the child, who is named Mohammed and provides them with a glimmer of hope at the most trying time of their training. Mohammed’s rescue is punctuated by screams of ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘God Is Great’ - the ceremonially praise of God is recast for Western ears for praise in the face of the impossible, a moving rallying call for selfless men.
Watani My Homeland (Director: Marcel Mettelsiefen)
A family, led by the husband and father commanding the Free Syrian Army, consider their options during the height of the Civil War in Syria. To protect the children from the atrocities of war, the mother chooses to immigrate to Germany, leaving behind the family and the life they know. The film closely follows their life in Syria, including the dangers they face in air raids and the normalization the behavior of ISIS has to their children. After the mother makes the choice to move the family to Germany,, we follow their resettlement, including the mother's grief at leaving her husband behind and the children adapting to western culture. We get heat breaking glimpses of the youngest children's associations of planes and helicopters to their traumas in Syria, but hopeful glimpses of the older children as they participate in their new homeland and maintain the connection to their homeland, welcomed by new friends and becoming citizens of the world.
Predicting The Winner
In a year in which the Oscars are predicted to be more political than ever, it seems undoubtable that one of the three stories focusing on the Syrian crisis will emerge the winner. While I found 4.1 Miles to be the most effective and innovative, avoiding ‘talking heads’ and deploying a gonzo, Vice-like quality to it’s final product, the accessibility of The White Helmets, and Netflix’s ability to lobby for it make it the front runner. An additional political statement can be made as the The White Helmet team members, facing Visa restrictions, will be unlikely to attend the ceremony. The moment of explicit rebuke to the Trump administration may be a message some Academy members won’t be able to resist sending.