The documentary short competition has long been a prime stage for nonfiction talent, and thanks to the renewed interest of streamers and new platforms, the format is as lively as ever. This year’s nominees encompass a wide range of subjects, from female sports pioneers to homelessness, love in a warzone and childhood bullying. And don’t let the running times fool you: these docs are every bit as rigorous, inventive and heartbreaking as anything the feature competition has to offer. As nominee Jay Rosenblatt quips when asked of the advantages of the short format: “Some would say it’s harder. Mark Twain’s quote comes to mind: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.’”
Director Matt Ogens has a personal connection to the Maryland School for the Deaf — he grew up nearby, his aunt taught sign language at the school and his best friend is deaf. Over the course of 10 years he made frequent visits to the school and eventually developed a film focusing on its football team, capturing intense locker room pep talks delivered in sign language, and clear-eyed perspectives on the challenges faced by deaf young people outside the school’s confines.
“[The school was] supremely supportive and welcomed us into their hallways, homes and community and made this film possible,” he says. “From there, we just needed to find the right story to tell. Then we met [subjects] Amaree, then Jalen, and then the devastating story of Teddy unfolded. There was so much to unpack, and I immediately knew this was the story we needed to tell.”
Lead Me Home
From directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk, “Lead Me Home” is a kaleidoscopic portrait of homelessness, organized around the guiding principle that “each individual experiencing homelessness has a different story.” The directors surveyed unhoused people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, zeroing in on several and allowing their stories to unfold.
“We all shared the same goals and dreams, whether we are housed or unhoused,” Kos and Shenk say, “so we wanted to show the audience the scope, scale and the ever-growing malignancy of the issue in our cities, reminding people that these beautiful cities are the victims of economic policies that affected so many people.”
The Queen of Basketball
Nominated last year for directing “A Concerto Is a Conversation” with Kris Bowers, Ben Proudfoot offers yet another deep-focus study of an extraordinary American, in this case Lusia Harris, an Olympic athlete who became the first (and only) woman drafted into the NBA in the 1970s.
“I saw a shameful gap between the significance of this incredible woman and basketball pioneer and how well known she was,” Proudfoot says. “I wanted to help give Ms. Harris her flowers while she was still here.”
Sadly, Harris passed away earlier this year. “It broke my heart. We had been building momentum with the film and more and more people had been reaching out and recognizing her.”
Three Songs for Benazir
Set in an Afghani refugee camp, “Three Songs for Benazir” offers an intimate, personal story from a country that many Americans only associate with tragic headlines. Directed by married filmmakers Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei, the film centers on the relationship between two young Afghanis named Shaista and Benazir, whose romance thrives through all of the everyday hardships of their surroundings.
“Being Afghan myself, I wanted to tell the story of my country in my own voice and through my own lens,” Gulistan says. “Because, like anywhere else in the world, Afghanistan is full of romance and love. Maybe even more so. We fell in love and got married in Kabul ourselves. We saw how love can bloom against a backdrop of violence. And we hoped others would see how courageous Shaista and Benazir are in their ability to preserve intimacy and love in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”
When We Were Bullies
Arguably the most experimental film of the nominees, Jay Rosenblatt’s short springs from the filmmaker’s desire to confront an ugly incident from his own childhood, when he and several friends attacked a fellow classmate. Rosenblatt tracks down several of his old classmates — as well as “my fifth-grade teacher, who is thankfully still alive,” he says — and uses their discussions to create a far-ranging meditation on complicity and trauma.
The hardest part? “Finding the right tone of the film was a challenge, and being sensitive to the classmate who was bullied.”