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Oscar-Contending Documentary Shorts Take Upbeat Approach on Serious Topics

Breast cancer, gun violence, end of life — all weighty topics that many people would like to avoid, let alone watch a film about. But this year three short documentaries not only explore each difficult issue head-on, but also give audiences a new, hopeful and productive way to comprehend and cope with these distressing subjects.

HBO’s “RX: Early Detection — A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee” follows Lee in 2015 after a routine medical check-up delivers a breast cancer diagnosis. Director Cathy Chermol Schrijver documents the television personality’s very personal nine-month cancer battle and the hardships it entailed, including a double mastectomy.

“This documentary is a tool for people who have gone through [breast cancer], who have it or who will have it,” says Lee, who is now cancer free. “In the film you see how fast this cancer grows and how early detection is key. People need to know that and shame on me if I don’t share that.”

The film has led to positive changes. Lee’s partner, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recently announced the Get Screened, No Excuses initiative that improves access to breast cancer screening for New Yorkers.

Lessons From a School Shooting: Notes From Dunblane” director Kim Snyder is hoping her film will also lead to legislative changes. The Netflix short is about Connecticut’s Monsignor Robert Weiss, who in the days following the Sandy Hook massacre was tasked with the burial of eight children. In the throes of PTSD, Weiss receives support from Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan in Dunblane, Scotland, where in 1996, 16 school children were gunned down.

“In these crazy times where there’s so much ugliness and divisiveness, a story about sister communities that have been afflicted with gun violence, reaching out to one another to join together puts a much needed human dimension on the issue,” says Snyder.

Humanity is also at the center of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “End Game.” The Netflix short follows various San Francisco families grappling with death and the medical providers who are dedicated to relieving suffering, and to change the way people think about living life near the end.

“We have a choice about how we leave this world,” the helmers said in a statement to Variety. “It can be a torturous ordeal, or it can be peaceful and beautiful. It’s our choice. To make the choice, we have to think and talk about it. That’s what we hope this movie will encourage and inspire.”

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