This year’s crop of best documentary short subject Oscar finalists covers a wide spectrum, charting the globe from Ebola-stricken Liberia to the silver mines of Bolivia. Half the line-up focuses on the plight of women. One has ties to the film industry. Another comes from a previous Oscar winner in the category. What they have in common is each sheds light on far reaches, both geographically and culturally.
Here is a breakdown of the field after a viewing of all 10 contenders. Nominees will be announced on Jan. 14 alongside the Academy’s other 23 categories.
“Body Team 12” follows one of the many “body teams” tasked with collecting the dead in the middle of a Liberian Ebola outbreak. It’s a dangerous job as team members seal off their suits before heading into a home to remove the deceased, while family members and neighbors audibly grieve nearby. The film is shot with immediacy and in wide angles that make sure you don’t miss any context. It focuses on one female member of the team, who conveys empathy for those who often view her and her colleagues as a threat, showing up at a painful time to anonymously cart their loved ones away. At just over 13 minutes long, this is the shortest of the 10 contenders.
The setting of “Chau, Beyond the Lines” is initially a small Peace Camp for children suffering birth defects caused by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It’s tucked away in the back of a Ho Chi Min City maternity hospital and one of the kids is Chau, a boy who longs to be an artist. With stunted growth in his extremities imposing physical limitations, the process of painting is a struggle, but Chau’s passion is palpable. The film, which follows him over the course of a few years, showcases his struggle with inspiration, notes a culture of discouragement among the nurses in the hospital who think his dream is unrealistic and follows his efforts to ultimately achieve independence.
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“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” begins by putting the eponymous journalist/filmmaker’s monumental 10-hour documentary on the Holocaust, “Shoah,” in a quick context with thoughts from the likes of film critic Richard Brody and director Marcel Ophuls. It then dives headlong into a study of its making, with Lanzmann recounting the great emotional toll the seven years of production and five years of editing had on him. It is at once a fascinating portrait of a man openly pessimistic about the world, and a unique distillation of a creative process that yielded one of the most powerful cinematic documents of our time. Consider it a strong contender.
On the heels of the Syrian civil war, “50 Feet From Syria” follows Syrian-American surgeon Hisham Bismar as he volunteers in the region, operating on victims of president Bashar al-Assad’s carnage. It’s visually brutal, never shying away from the injuries caused by bombing, snipers and sarin gas during the campaign — indeed, so much so that it offers a warning at the top about the graphic nature of the imagery. Much of it can be very upsetting because the victims are children, making for quite a harrowing package overall. It ends by thanking the surgeons and, of particular note as of late, refugees, who risked their lives to participate in the film.
The subject of honor killings is under the microscope in “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” perhaps the most complete contender of the lot. The film feels quite full, despite its length. It focuses on Saba, an 18-year-old Pakistani girl who miraculously survived an attempt honor killing at the hands of her father and uncle after she dared to fall in love with a boy and elope. It does a fantastic job of providing a space for the father to explain his religion-diseased rationale, leaving you nothing but compassionate for women confined to a society infused with that kind of barbarism. Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy triumphed in this category three years ago for another look at the plight of Islamic women, “Saving Face.” She is also in the documentary feature running this year with “Song of Lahore.”
The film that stands out formally in the race is “Last Day of Freedom,” an animated exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder and capital punishment through a very personal account of the arrest, conviction and execution of former U.S. Marine Manny Babbitt. The animation itself is unique, moving from the fine lines of reenactments and an interview session with Babbitt’s brother, to a black-and-white, watercolor-like aesthetic that adds to the intimate nature of the narrative being conveyed. The effect is a bit of a fever dream, often forcing a subjective perspective on a former soldier haunted by the horrors of the Vietnam War and the ominous unfolding of a legal situation that sheds light on one of the many ways our system fails troubled vets.
A balance of danger and superstition lingers over the silver mine at the center of “Minerita,” where workers pray to a demon for safety rather than any benevolent force, for there is no god there. So says Abigail, one of three women profiled in the film who work under arduous conditions in and around the Cerro de Potosí mountain. They face violence (sometimes sexual), defend themselves at night with live dynamite and essentially scramble for a living in the middle of what was once one of the greatest sources of wealth for the New World Spanish Empire. Films like this, with striking photography, that take uninformed viewers to unique pockets of the world, tend to stand out in documentary races.
“My Enemy, My Brother” tells what at first appears to be a classic story of humanity found on the battlefield. Two former soldiers, an Iraqi (Najah) and an Iranian (Zahed), give their separate perspectives of an incident during the 1980 Battle of Khorramshahr, during which Zahed showed mercy to an injured Najah. Twenty years later, they randomly met again, and the experience was profound for each. A number of reenactments carry the story to start, with Najah and Zahed the talking-head narrators. But eventually, seeing them together opens that structure up a bit. It’s an emotional, if brief (16 minutes), contender.
Intimacy is key in “Starting Point,” a profile of 28-year-old Aneta, who has served nine years in prison for killing her grandmother during a heated dispute by the time cameras catch up to her. Her daily routine takes her from behind those walls to an elderly care facility, where she meets Helena, ill since infancy and eager to learn more about Aneta’s life, as her own is one of drastic confinement. The film really catches you off guard with its fly-on-the-wall observations, finding candid moments infused with dramatic intensity as Aneta hopes for an early release.
Finally, “The Testimony” would make an interesting double feature with Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” but it offers a sliver of hope in the ongoing crisis in the Congo. It’s a region that fails its women, where soldiers rape them and rob them of their daughters, where husbands leave wives after they fall victim to sexual assault. But at the Minova rape trial, where 39 soldiers were tried for such crimes, one interviewee notes it was the first time she had ever seen women with the courage to speak out. It was the largest trial in the history of the Congo, though only two individuals were ultimately convicted. And, of course, soldiers continue to rape there with impunity. The film ends on a slightly optimistic note, focused on the importance of educating young women and the hope of an imminent enlightenment period when they can take control of their lives and their destinies.