No doubt the least-watched of any Oscar category, the documentary short films are the great beneficiaries of the Academy’s magnanimity, both in continuing to recognize an outdated format and in directing attention toward worthy causes. In the early days, the prizes typically went to propaganda films made by the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Now, it’s one way AMPAS demonstrates its engagement with various social issues, nearly always celebrating subject matter over cinematic achievement, as evidenced by its selection of two Polish-made terminal-illness portraits, two serious-minded employment impact studies and a pressing look at the veteran suicide epidemic.
Fortunately, a couple of these noms — specifically, “White Earth” and “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” — are truly exceptional films in their own right, treasures you almost certainly wouldn’t see if not for their nominated status (the former debuted at Slamdance but never ventured far from the festival circuit, the latter can be seen on HBO). Thanks to the efforts of Shorts International, however, they are also available in theaters, split across two hefty programs; individually on Vimeo and other online platforms; or on-demand via select cable providers.
The selection of two Polish docus, both about people coping with fatal conditions, comes as pure coincidence, but a compelling one given the country’s frontrunner status in the foreign language race with “Ida.” Made in film school, Tomasz Sliwinski’s autobiographical “Our Curse” depicts how the helmer and his wife Magda struggle to raise their newborn son, Leo, who has been diagnosed with congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, or Ondine’s Curse, an extremely rare disorder in which the body ceases to regulate breathing during sleep and therefore requires the support of an elaborate machine. There aren’t many sounds more heartbreaking than a child’s cries distorted through the tracheotomy incision in his throat, and one can only begin to imagine what the parents must be going through — which is precisely what Sliwinski aims to capture, turning the camera on himself and Magda, in what proves to be an uncomfortably personal film.
“Joanna” flips the equation, centering on a mother with only three months to live who’s determined to maximize the time she has left with her young son and husband. In this case, director Aneta Kopacz didn’t know her subject personally, but was touched by Joanna Salyga’s blog, “Chustka,” in which she shared her experiences with readers, a number of whom stepped up to sponsor the crowd-funded short. Almost none of this information comes across in the film itself, which serves as an artsy portrait her son can use to remember her by in the future, shot in shallow focus; cobbled together with jumpy, impressionistic cuts; and composed of seemingly mundane moments between Joanna and her family. “Joanna” is melancholy in the extreme, but reminds how much we take for granted, from seeing rainbows to teaching our kids to ride a bike.
Where Joanna seems hyper-sensitized to every moment that she has left, Efrain Jimenez Garcia — the slaughterhouse worker profiled in Gabriel Serra’s “The Reaper” — seems totally desensitized to life. According to an info card flashed at the end of the film, Efrain has been killing 500 bulls a day, six days a week for the past 25 years. Such a job must take it toll on someone, and sure enough, the man we see appears virtually numb to the world around him — though it might just be the way the film presents him, following Efrain into the abattoir, staring unflinchingly at the cattle’s faces as they are led into the pen and killed. Characterized by its stark, high-impact imagery, yet far from objective in its portrayal, the film displays a photographer’s eye, a sociologist’s curiosity and a vegetarian’s agenda.
Meanwhile, in the snowy North Dakota depicted in “White Earth,” director J. Christian Jensen chronicles the influx of opportunity seekers to a quiet oil-drilling town, ignoring the laborers in favor of their families. Terrence Malick would love the kid Jensen finds wiling away his days in a crowded trailer park — a still-innocent witness to this grim, impermanent living arrangement, where oil-field workers have extended their RVs via makeshift plywood walls, suggesting a ramshackle 21st-century version of the California Gold Rush. It’s obvious why the men have come, so the film wisely privileges their kids, who sometimes go weeks without seeing their parents, describing the pungent gas smell that permeates their clothes when they come home. This year, all five noms are chasing some ineffable sense of poetry, but only Jensen achieves it with this Stanford master’s thesis project, collecting and arranging details in a way that makes it feel as if we’re experiencing the scene in person, fending off the cold and chasing the dream.
Judged on artistic merits alone, “White Earth” would be the category’s winner, but it has stiff competition in Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” which grips us from the get-go with its opening statistic — “America’s veterans are killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day, nearly one every hour” — and never lets go. Like a white-knuckle TV procedural, the docu takes us behind the scenes of the Veterans Crisis Line Center in Canandaigua, N.Y., where trained pros team up to talk post-traumatic stress cases off the ledge. On the other end, troubled vets sit with loaded guns in hand or razor blades within reach, having taken the trouble to call the number before taking drastic action — or, in one case, while waiting for the pills to take effect (a chilling real-world version of the scenario dramatized in live-action short nom “The Phone Call” with a far different outcome). Clearly, something must be done to help vets cope with their experience, an idea the film addresses obliquely, emphasizing the call center’s day-to-day struggle to keep these survivors alive. For patriots and anti-war objectors alike, the film demonstrates the consequences of military service and brings the abstract idea of war back home in a powerful way, recognizing those who protect the men and women who fought to protect us.