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Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts Tug at Heartstrings

Short docs can pack an outsized emotional punch into their 40 minutes or less running time. Topics covered by this year’s Oscar short subject documentary nominees include the Mediterranean’s refugee crisis seen in close-up via student Academy Award winner Daphne Matziaraki’s “4.1 Miles,” trailing a Greek coast guard captain on patrol in unforgiving straits, and “Watani: My Homeland,” which follows a Syrian family fleeing the country’s civil war, from German photojournalist Marcel Mettelsiefen. The travails of Syria’s Nobel Peace prize-nominated citizen rescuers are exposed via Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara’s “The White Helmets.” Berkeley-based cinematographer and educator Dan Krauss imbeds in an Oakland hospital’s intensive care unit as his “Extremis” follows a doctor counseling patients and their families, who are facing profound decisions. On the domestic front, “Joe’s Violin,” from former “The Daily Show” producer, multi-Emmy and Peabody winner Kahane Cooperman, who directed and produced, and producer Raphaela Neihausen, pulls on the heartstrings as the filmmakers demonstrate the redemptive power of music as an unlikely friendship is forged after the donation of a storied violin.

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Cooperman conceived “Joe’s Violin” in the compressed time frame. “I saw the structure as being able to be told in a short period of time,” she says. She balances the two protags: a 12-year-old girl who receives the violin through her school’s music program and the 91-year-old Holocaust survivor (Joe Feingold) who donated the instrument. “The short format helps you understand why it’s equally meaningful for both of them,” says the helmer. The film is available on The New Yorker’s online screening room.

Director-producer Dan Krauss was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for the docu short “The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club.” Netflix’s “Extremis” (winner of documentary short at Tribeca) takes auds into the end-of-life situations often confronted in an ICU. “It’s a place where faith and science collide, as well as a place of quiet beauty,” says Krauss. Although it was sometimes difficult to obtain subjects’ permission for the verite work, “many came to see the camera as way to connect with others,” Krauss adds of the doc that at its core highlights human empathy. Greece-born Matziaraki’s master’s thesis film for UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, “4.1 Miles” also aims to connect auds to life-and-death matters far removed from their lives.

“I sought out an everyday person who was experiencing this enormous humanitarian crisis,” says Matziaraki of her decision to track Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his crew as they rescue refugees foundering in the sea. The short is now posted as a New York Times Op-Doc. The film has also won a Student Academy Award gold medal. “I wanted to make a film, which would bridge the gap between our comfort zone and this reality.”

“Watani: My Homeland” uses a Syrian family to illustrate a greater truth as director-producer Mettelsiefen chronicles their emigration and struggle to adapt to life in Germany.

“The mother came to realize there was no future in Syria; to save her children she has to leave,” he says, acknowledging the complications of any discussion of refugee-related issues. He hopes that the short “creates a connection across worlds” and reveals to auds the untenable situations that cause families to abandon their homeland. “I wanted to let people see a Muslim middle-class family and see their dreams.”

The White Helmets’” filmmakers also find Syria a difficult geopolitical issue for people to engage with. “We don’t hear very much from the Syrian civilians left behind,” says producer Natasegara. The short follows a team of tradesman-turned-rescuers as they pull civilians from bombed sites, including hospitals, and train in Turkey.

“From a creative point-of-view, the short format was as challenging as a feature,” says director-producer von Einsiedel. Graphic footage is kept at a minimum. “We needed to make the film watchable,” Natasegara says.

The filmmakers’ intent is to reach the widest audience as possible.  Netflix has streamed the film to 190 countries and translated it into 20 languages. “It was no less hard than making a feature,” echoes Natasegara of the film’s challenges. Only active and life Academy members who have viewed all of the nominated short docs can vote in the final round.

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