Even a feature-length documentary can have trouble getting a substantive grip on its subject, which makes each of this year’s Academy Award-nominated nonfiction shorts a rewarding case study in how a tight running time can prove both help and hindrance; if anything, the necessary economy of the storytelling can enable already hard-hitting subject matter to land with an even more potent, concentrated intensity. Nonetheless, these talented filmmakers find room for a measure of tentative optimism, whether it’s in the aftermath of an attempted Muslim honor killing in “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”; the future of a disabled young Vietnamese artist in “Chau, Beyond the Lines”; the lingering tragedy of a mentally troubled man’s execution in “Last Day of Freedom”; or the unspeakable horror of the ebola outbreak in West Africa in “Body Team 12.” Even “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” a rich and ruminative companion piece to the least consoling of Holocaust films, concludes with an unexpected grace note — an acknowledgment that there is more nobility than futility in the act of trying to make sense of suffering.
One of the strongest examples of that commitment here can be found in “A Girl in the River,” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s intimate and disturbing portrait of 19-year-old Pakistani woman Saba Qaiser, who paid a terrible price for falling in love with and marrying a young man against her family’s wishes. Her father and uncle took her to a river, shot her in the face, threw her into the water and left her for dead; she survived, and the perpetrators were arrested and charged. The outrage is far from over, however, as Obaid-Chinoy (who won the Oscar for her 2012 short documentary “Saving Face”), gaining extraordinary access to all involved — including the father and uncle, unapologetic in their prison cell — captures a community so in thrall to the notion of honor that the law allows them to kill in order to preserve it. And despite the more temperate attitudes represented by Qaiser’s husband and his family, the film also conveys a palpable sense of psychological and religious enslavement: Even Qaiser, claiming she would like to see her attempted killers “shot in public in an open market,” seems less angry about their murderous actions than the fact that they violated their sacred oath on the Quran.
“A Girl in the River” is one of three HBO titles in the collection, the other two being “Spectres of the Shoah” and “Body Team 12,” which, as directed by the American filmmaker David Darg, clocks in as the shortest entry at 13 minutes. Still, it makes every one of those minutes count as it focuses on the efforts of a Liberian Red Cross team whose job it is to properly remove and dispose of of the bodies of ebola victims. The film is told from the perspective of medical professional Garmai Sumo, the only female member of her team, who describes both the physical challenges of the job (we see her and her colleagues wearing tight protective suiting before entering infected homes) and the difficulty of dealing with the angry and bereaved, who often want to bury their dead themselves. The result is a brief glimpse into unimaginable conditions that, whatever it may lack in narrative context and development, makes up for it in the propulsive immediacy of Darg’s footage.
A more straightforward mix of talking heads and observational footage builds steadily and absorbingly in “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” Courtney Marsh’s eight-years-in-the-making film about Chau, a 16-year-old boy in Ho Chi Minh City who is determined to make his way as an artist, despite being severely disabled in his arms and legs. The film devotes considerable attention to the other kids in the care center where Chau spends much of his upbringing, and we see the longing for normalcy in their laughing, bickering interplay. It’s soon made clear that these children are suffering the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical the U.S. military sprayed over the jungles of Vietnam during the war — a fact that can’t help but infuse the proceedings with a measure of righteous anger, though for the most part Marsh maintains a steady and unwaveringly sympathetic tone as she charts Chau’s passage through cycles of despair and hope, while her camera takes appreciative measure of his burgeoning and at times ingeniously applied talent.
The legacy of the U.S. military’s involvement in Vietnam casts an even more wrenching shadow in “Last Day of Freedom,” which, by dint of being animated, is by some distance the most formally adventurous of the five shorts. Employing clean, black-and-white lines and the occasional splash of color, directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman give wrenchingly vivid life to the narrative of Bill Babbitt as he calls his relationship with his younger brother, Manny, a former U.S. Marine who was convicted of the 1980 murder of 78-year-old Leah Schendel in Sacramento, Calif., and executed in 1999. Bill takes us through his brother’s lifelong torment, from the childhood car accident that left him severely impaired to his service in Vietnam, which left him with PTSD (and earned him a Purple Heart that was awarded to him on death row). Even as it touches on issues of mental health, the plight of American veterans, and (most pointedly) the death penalty, “Last Day of Freedom” maintains an unswervingly personal focus on Bill and his determination to do right by his brother, even when it meant surrendering him to a system that felt no such obligation.
The richest and most ruminative of the nominated shorts is British filmmaker-journalist Adam Benzine’s “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which takes the form of an interview with Lanzmann about the 12 years he spent making his nine-hour 1985 masterwork. Early on his countryman and fellow documentarian Marcel Ophuls warns us, perhaps needlessly, that Lanzmann can be a prickly and arrogant subject, but the filmmaker we spend roughly the next 40 minutes is generous, even warm, with his memories and insights. He speaks of his extraordinary difficulty in deciding whether to accept the Israeli commission in 1973, as well as his gradual realization that to do justice to his subject would require much more than the initially planned two hours; it would also require a highly rigorous approach that — in eschewing photographs, re-creations and the other traditional expedients of the documentary form, and focusing entirely on eyewitness testimony — would reflect in its very form the totalizing oblivion of the Final Solution itself.
For his part, Benzine doesn’t attempt to mimic Lanzmann’s methods. He employs black-and-white film footage and incorporates clips from “Shoah,” as well as unseen outtake material, providing strong visual correlatives as Lanzmann returns to some of the most difficult moments of his filmmaking process — none more heartrending than his interview with Abraham Bomba, who cut the hair of the women sent to the gas chambers at Treblinka, and none more harrowing than Lanzmann’s attempt to secretly film an interview with the SS officer Heinz Schubert. The film roves backward to the director’s own wartime experience as a 17-year-old French Resistance fighter, then forward to his relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Benzine’s film ends too soon, of course, but with words that make clear what it cost Lanzmann to make “Shoah” and the enduring necessity of that cost: “To make this film was a total war against everything and everybody.”
Body Team 12
A Ryot Films and Vulcan Prods. Produced by David Darg, Bryn Mooser. Executive producer, Paul G. Allen. Co-executive producers, Olivia Wilde, Carole Tomko. Running time: 13 MIN.
Directed by David Darg. Camera (color/HD); music, Salomon Leighthelm, A.J. Hochhalter, Ryan Taubert; sound, William McGuigan; associate producers, Martha Rogers, Gareth Seltzer, Bill Horan.
With: Garmai Sumo.
Chau, Beyond the Lines
(U.S.-Vietnam) A 7th Art Releasing presentation of a Cynasty Films production. Produced by Jerry Franck, Courtney Marsh. Executive producer, Marcelo Mitnik.
Directed, edited by Courtney Marsh; story, Marsh, Marcelo Mitnik. Camera (color, HD), Marsh; music, Steve London; sound, Dan Snow; re-recording mixer, Gabriel J. Serrano; visual effects, Scott Dawson; associate producer, Duy Nguyen. Running time: 34 MIN.
With: Le Minh Chau. (Vietnamese dialogue)
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
(Canada-U.S.-U.K.) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Jet Black Iris America production, in co-production with ZDF, in collaboration with Arte. Produced by Adam Benzine. Executive producer, Nick Fraser. Co-producer, Kimberley Warner.
Directed by Adam Benzine. Camera (color), Alex ordanis; editor, Tiffany Beaudin; music, Joel Goodman; sound, Daniel Hewett; associate producers, Halim Benzine, Kelsey Irvine, Alex Ordanis. Running time: 40 MIN.
With: Claude Lanzmann, Marcel Ophuls, Stuart Liebman, Richard Brody. (French, English dialogue)
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
(Pakistan-U.S.) An HBO Documentary Films presentation.
Produced by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Executive producers, Tina Brown, Sheila Nevins. Co-producer, Haya Fatima Iqbal.
Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Camera (color), Asad Faruqi; editor, Geof Bartz; music, Wendy Blackstone; sound, Nadir Siddiqui; re-recording mixer, Chris Bertolotti. Running time: 39 MIN.
With: Saba Qaiser. (Urdu dialogue)
Last Day of Freedom
(Animated) Produced by Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman. Executive producers, Vivian Kleiman, Pamela Harris, Corey Tong, Alex Austin.
Directed, edited by Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman. (Color); music, Fred Frith; sound, Jeremiah Moore; associate producer, Penelope Wong; key animation and design, Hibbert-Jones, Talisman. Running time: 32 MIN.
Voice: Bill Babbitt.