‘2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary’ Review: Seeking Transcendence in Tragedy

From starving children to a Nazi concentration camp visit, the subjects may sound depressing, but the treatments offer uplift and inspiration.

A Love Song for Latasha
Courtesy of Netflix

For decades, the three Oscar shorts prizes — live action, animated and especially documentary — have confounded those who watch the awards. Shorts were all but impossible to see and subject to a different set of rules. That was until ShortsTV came along to distribute the nominees, but even then, at the qualification stage, virtually every other category had to play theatrically, whereas the shorts didn’t, causing some to question whether they even belonged in the Oscar telecast at all. And then the pandemic hit: In 2020, hardly any features opened in cinemas, whereas short films enjoyed more exposure than they had previously, thanks to the rapidly expanding number of streaming platforms that carried them — from Netflix to Paramount Plus to outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times. Suddenly, the doc shorts category seems more accessible and relevant than ever.

When it comes to topicality, it’s hard to beat Sophia Nahli Allison’s powerful 19-minute “A Love Song for Latasha,” which played the Tribeca and Sundance film festivals before the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Now streaming on Netflix, the short revisits one of the catalyzing tragedies of the 1992 L.A. riots — the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a liquor store owner over a bottle of orange juice — through the eyes of her cousin Shinese and best friend Tybie O’Bard. Allison presents a sophisticated, semi-experimental visual essay, using VHS tracking effects to rewind audiences to the early ’90s. Her original approach interweaves emotional interviews, evocative reenactments and various artistic touches, including animation and Stan Brakhage-like abstractions. Most audiences are aware of what happened to Harlins, but relatively few know her story. Allison’s poignant short brings the loss into fresh focus.

A bracing eyewitness account of the Hong Kong protests of late 2019, Anders Hammer’s “Do Not Split” represents a courageous act of vérité filmmaking, as the director embeds himself among the crowds of activists fighting back against Chinese control. The helmer alternates between interviews with young demonstrators — many of them women, all explaining themselves in English — and potentially dangerous maneuvers, as they infiltrate Chinese banks and set their ATMs on fire, or launch coordinated attacks on police forces, braving their way through clouds of tear gas. The movie delivers a front-line look at a resistance movement, although there’s more than one way to see these actions, much as Americans realized last year, when peaceful protests were characterized as riots. But the footage shown here is anything but peaceful, as students throw Molotov cocktails at cops. The 35-minute running time doesn’t seem adequate to contain this story, which could easily support a feature.

More typical of Oscar winners such as “Saving Face” and “Period. End of Sentence,” Skye Fitzgerald’s grueling 40-minute “Hunger Ward” asks audiences to confront a devastating humanitarian crisis, as Saudi air strikes and blockades on Yemen leave countless children on the brink of starvation. This isn’t a crisis that gets much attention in the West, which no doubt explains Fitzgerald’s strategy of using suffering kids to make her case — and who among us can look away when malnourished infants are dying before our eyes, or as devastated relatives react to the news on camera? Seeking some sense of uplift, the film celebrates the work of two women, Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekki Mahdi, who are fighting to save these collateral victims of an ongoing civil war, but it’s a lot for any audience to take.

Fourth in ShortsTV’s release package, Anthony Giacchino’s “Colette” opens with the warning “Viewers may find the content of this film distressing” (although the same can be said of the three shorts that preceded it). The Colette in question is a strong-willed 90-year-old Frenchwoman whose brother died in the Nazi concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora. All her life, she’s avoided visiting Germany, finally agreeing to do so now at the suggestion of a young historian, Lucie Fouble, who accompanies her to the town of Nordhausen. It’s a strange project in that this emotional trip seems to exist for the sake of documentation (indeed, the local mayor uses the opportunity to deliver a speech, which Colette brusquely cuts short, about how the Holocaust can never be allowed to repeat itself). Still, there’s something poignant about watching the younger generation swear to keep alive the memories that Colette has tried so hard to forget.

The feel-good cherry on top, “A Concerto Is a Conversation” can be viewed as the upbeat alternative to the four brutal shorts that have come before. Produced by The New York Times, the film captures an inspirational exchange between two generations in a Black family, as jazz composer Kris Bowers (who did all the piano playing in “Green Book”) sits down with his grandfather, Horace Bowers. Decades earlier, Horace hitchhiked from Florida to California, Jim Crow be damned; today, the 91-year-old shares stories of the racism and resistance he overcame to make Kris’ music career possible. Kris (who co-directs with Ben Proudfoot) models his camera rig on Errol Morris’ “interrotron,” so that the two men can gaze directly into the camera as they connect with one another. Kris calls his latest concerto “For a Younger Self,” though it may as well be dedicated to those whose sacrifices paved the way.

‘2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary’ Review: Seeking Transcendence in Tragedy

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, April 23, 2021. Running time: TK MIN.

  • Production: A ShortsTV release. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Stephanie Charmail.