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Oscar Documentary Short Nominees Tackle Big Themes

The short documentary format does not constrain Oscar-nominated filmmakers from creating meaningful work and tackling difficult mega-sized topics despite a 40 minutes or less allotted running time. In all, 77 films qualified for the 90th awards; in a departure from recent contests, this year’s doc shorts are all American made.

The Intl. Documentary Assn.’s (IDA) winner for best short, “Edith+Eddie,” comes from Brooklyn-based director, producer and editor Laura Checkoway and producer Thomas Lee Wright. Kartemquin Films executive produced.

Edith and Eddie, 95 and 96, respectively, are newlyweds and an interracial couple. However, their unlikely love story comes up against today’s profoundly broken elder-care system. “This film is a true indie made with a lot of love,” Checkoway notes. She hopes the nomination will “lead to shining more light on all the elders and families caught in legal guardianships that Edith and Eddie’s story represents.”

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Veteran Los Angeles commercial producer Frank Stiefel undertook most production roles on “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405.” He served as producer, writer, director, soundman and cinematographer for the intimate portrait of artist Mindy Alper, who lives with extreme anxiety and depression.

“Having made 40 years of TV commercials, I learned the discipline of getting a lot of information in a small period of time,” he says of the self-funded film, which premiered at the Austin Film Festival, winning three awards.

“Heroin(e)’s” husband-and-wife team of director-producer Elaine McMillion Sheldon and producer-DP Kerrin Sheldon spent close to a year filming the story of three women in West Virginia who, through their profession and advocacy confront the fallout of the nation’s opioid crisis on a daily basis.

“We hope the nomination creates more attention and community screenings because our goal has always been to get people talking, to find solutions and move forward into a more positive direction,” says Sheldon of the Netflix documentary, funded in part by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Knife Skills
Gotham-based filmmaker Thomas Lennon earned his fourth nomination for “Knife Skills,” which premiered and won the audience award at the Traverse City Film Festival — founded by Michael Moore. “Some stories you dig and dig and research, and sometimes a story tumbles into your lap,” says the previous Oscar doc short subject winner (“The Blood of Yingzhou District,” shared with Ruby Yang).

“Knife Skills” follows restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, as he proposes to open the “greatest French restaurant” in the United States in, of all places, Cleveland. The kicker: virtually all of the staff would be fresh out of prison. “I knew there was a film there no matter what happened,” says Lennon.

Traffic Stop
“Traffic Stop” is lauded documentarian Kate Davis’ first short. (She previously won a Sundance Documentary Grand Jury prize for “Southern Comfort.”) An Austin, Texas, traffic stop leads to the brutalization of driver Breaion King, an African-American school teacher with no record. The short, which will air on HBO in early spring, tackles questions about racism, law enforcement and gender.

Davis and her producer David Heilbroner found the short format an advantage. “I didn’t have to get mired in the details of the case,” she explains. “I was able to create a more poetic look at Breaion’s life,” she adds of the film that makes remarkable use of police cruiser dash cam footage of the violent incident.

To vote on the winner, Acad members must view all the nominated shorts.

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