Has any Oscar category changed more since its inception than best documentary short? Trace the prize back to its origins, in 1941, and the nominees were dominated by newsreel and propaganda films (at a time when “The March of Time” and patriotic shorts produced by the United States Office of War Information preceded the feature). Later, the category passed through an educational period (in which Walt Disney and Charles Guggenheim were rewarded for their informational shorts, and glorified commercials such as “Glass” and “Giuseppina” took the prize), before documentary filmmaking took an artistic leap forward (spurred on by the rise in reality television) around the year 2000.
That brings us to today, as well-framed political causes and gripping character portraits make for one of the show’s strongest categories — this despite the fact that hardly anyone actually sees documentary shorts in theaters anymore. For the sake of fairness, the Academy might want to consider folding the category in with doc feature, where eight-hour, made-for-TV “O.J.: Made in America” won last year, effectively demonstrating that length — whether short or extra-long — is no longer a consideration. In the meantime, voters (and audiences curious enough to watch the nominees in theaters or on-demand) have five terrific shorts to consider in what’s unofficially become Oscar’s charity category.
Alphabetically speaking, the first nominee, “Edith+Eddie,” was what you might call an unhappy accident. Director Laura Checkoway heard an inspiring story about a pair of interracial newlyweds, Edith Hill and Eddie Hamilton, who met while playing the lottery and decided to get married at ages 95 and 96. Checkoway hoped to capture the elderly couple’s romance and routine (a scene in which Edith gives thanks for being alive while her hard-of-hearing hubby asks her to repeat herself is a gem), only to watch things turn tragic, bearing witness to ageism and opportunism, as Edith’s daughters disagree about whether the marriage is valid. The crew is present when a court-appointed guardian forces Edith out of her longtime home, and follows Eddie into the hospital after the separation proves too much for him to bear. Devastating as it all is to watch, there’s something slightly disingenuous about the way the short (which was produced by Cher!) downplays — though it forces audiences to examine how unfairly our society treats its elders (an issue that earned “Big Mama” the Oscar back in 2001).
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Next up, in a short strong (and humane) enough to compete alongside the feature nominees, “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” introduces audiences to a woman they won’t soon forget, L.A. artist Mindy Alper, who candidly describes the mental health issues and various family traumas that set her apart from the strangers who cause her so much anxiety. Alper has difficulty speaking, but expresses herself in an extraordinary way (a box of words earns a laugh, as does her unique way of describing time). Instead of avoiding humor, director Frank Stiefel uses it to offset the melancholy side of Alper’s experience, while intercutting perfectly chosen examples of her artwork — dazzling pen-and-ink sketches that serve as wildly imaginative, often surrealistic metaphors for her most traumatic feelings — with old photos and revealing interviews. The mesmerizing result makes the case for the healing power of art, if only the rest of us had a fraction of Alper’s talent.
Though its title leaves something to be desired, Elaine McMillion Shelton’s “Heroin(e)” — which audiences can find on Netflix — focuses on three women on the front lines of the American opioid epidemic: deputy fire chief Jan Rader, drug court judge Patricia Keller, and the admirably nonjudgmental Necia Freeman (who hands out free meals with complimentary Bible verses via Brown Bag Ministries). By accompanying Rader and Freeman on their rounds, the film adopts a familiar format — pioneered by “Cops” and HBO’s “Hookers at the Point” — to show how addiction is destroying lives in Huntington, West Virginia, one of the worst-hit cities in what is clearly a nationwide epidemic. The inaugural project from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Glassbreaker Films initiative, designed to support women filmmakers telling stories about remarkable women, “Heroin(e)” engages with one of the country’s biggest problems by focusing our attention on real-world solutions, serving up three remarkable role models in the process.
The hero of Thomas Lennon’s “Knife Skills” is a Cleveland restaurant manager (and 2017 mayoral candidate) with a crazy idea: Brandon Edwin Chrostowski decided he wanted to open a first-class French restaurant staffed almost entirely by ex-cons (apart from the chef), training former inmates with little to no experience to cook and serve fancy Gallic fare. As an ex-con who had successfully managed to turn around his own life, Chrostowski was unusually sympathetic to the challenges facing prisoners who’ve served their time: Many employers won’t hire people with a criminal record, two-thirds of whom wind up behind bars again within three years of their release. Edited like a competitive reality show, “Knife Skills” accentuates the drama as it counts down to opening day, stirring the pot as those who’ve been given this incredible chance grapple with temper issues and the various temptations that might lead to recidivism, before ultimately celebrating their success.
Shifting the perspective from heroes to victims, Kate Davis’ ultra-timely “Traffic Stop” grapples with the issue of racial injustice within America’s so-called justice system, following up with an African-American driver who was yanked from her car and violently thrown to the ground after being pulled over by a white cop in Austin, Texas. Breaion King inadvertently found herself at the center of a discrimination scandal after a dash-cam video of her arrest went public. Intercutting between the deeply upsetting footage (reactions to which are complicated by the fact that King made the regrettable decision to challenge the officer at every turn) and scenes of a still-traumatized King attempting to move on with her life, Davis counter-intuitively presents King as “lucky” challenging our own prejudices in the process — the implication being that this otherwise upstanding citizen (she’s a model elementary school teacher) could easily have become yet another police-perpetrated fatality.