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Oscar Documentary Short Nominees on Finding Their Stories

The range and sophistication of today’s documentary filmmaking can be clearly seen in the themes and cinematic methods of the short subject documentary Oscar nominees. Nominated filmmakers recount how they found their stories.

Black Sheep
“Black Sheep” blends dramatic recreations and interview footage to tell Brit Cornelius Walker’s story. As a teenager of Nigerian descent, he went to extremes to fit into an all-white and racist neighborhood outside London. Produced by Jonathan Chinn (of U.K.’s Lightbox, behind Oscar winner “Searching for Sugar Man”) and directed by Ed Perkins, the short earned the top prize at the Sheffield Documentary film fest. Perkins met Walker via an informational interview and credits Walker’s uncanny ability to relate his difficult and ambiguous early life story. “He’s able to convey complicated emotions that become easy to relate to and emphasize with. He was willing to be vulnerable and brave enough to sit down in front of camera and bare his soul,” says Perkins. Director of photography Michael Paleodimos, who also shot 2015 Oscar narrative short winner “Stutterer,” utilized an Arri Alexa Mini with anamorphic lens to bring Walker’s story to life in standout style.

End Game
The short format allowed Academy Award-winning (1989’s “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt”) director and producer Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to explore the choices around end-of-life care — “End Game’s” focus — in a concentrated fashion without all the dramatic requirements of a feature-length documentary. “It was a very different filmmaking process: I shot, Jeffrey did sound, so there were only two of us in the room,” Epstein says. The San Francisco-based filmmakers discovered the caregivers at the Zen Hospice Project, whose job it is to alleviate suffering, and it seemed like “an amazing phenomenon,” Friedman says. “I like working in the short form; it forces you to make hard choices.” The pair found that end-of-life, while a universal experience, is a decidedly off-putting topic. Says Friedman: “ ‘End Game’ allows people insight into the possibilities available to us and how we can live our lives at the very end.”

“There’s no easy solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean,” says Portland, Ore.-based director Skye Fitzgerald. However, the filmmaker was propelled by his conscience to do something, and “Lifeboat” is the second film in his refugee trilogy intended to draw attention to the issue. Produced by Bryn Moser, the short is a visceral account of a rescue at sea off the coast of Libya by the nonprofit Sea-Watch, which aids and rescues refugees, many making the crossing in over-crowded, inflatable rafts and other unstable vessels. The self-funded film was shot in 2016 during one of Sea-Watch’s harrowing missions. “Lifeboat” premiered at Telluride’s Mountainfilm, where it won best short; it also won a jury prize at the Traverse City Film Festival and is available on the New Yorker website.

A Night at the Garden
Marshall Curry directed, wrote and produced this year’s shortest entry, with a running time of seven minutes. Using archival footage, Curry brings to light the forgotten story of a 20,000-strong 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden that celebrated Nazism. “A friend was writing a screenplay about New York City in 1939 and told me about it and I didn’t believe him,” says the Brooklyn-based Curry of the film’s origin. He began archival research and discovered footage in the National Archives and at the UCLA Film Archives. “I originally thought I would contextualize the footage but I decided instead to cut it together and let it play like a movie.” He wanted to draw people into the world and pique their curiosity, rather than making the film a history lecture. And Curry’s film certainly raises more questions than it answers. “I wanted people to realize that this thing had happened and sharpen their critical thinking about demagoguery,” the director says. “You see hateful philosophy wrapped in the American flag, with the Star-Spangled Banner and Pledge of Allegiance; we need to be sensitive to what is being sold when wrapped in those symbols.”

Period. End of Sentence.
Director Rayka Zehtabchi finished USC’s undergrad film studies program two years ago. Her short documentary, “Period. End of Sentence.” — produced by Melissa Berton — began as a fundraising project initiated by Los Angeles high school girls who raised funds via Kickstarter to help women in rural India by underwriting a machine that manufactures sanitary pads. Even today, access to feminine hygiene products is limited in rural areas. “There’s also a cultural taboo and lack of knowledge or understanding around mensuration,” Zehtabchi says. The film follows the delivery of one of the machines to a village outside Delhi, where it becomes a project and source of income for local women. “I saw an incredible shift in confidence in these women,” she adds. She kept the crew to a minimum, utilizing natural light in the verite documentary.

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