The five documentary shorts vying for this year’s Oscar are a powerfully moving collection of films on some very weighty topics — and they’re almost uniformly depressing. That being said, their social significance and to-the-minute topicality make them more or less required viewing. Just be forewarned that, in spite of the high level of technical proficiency they all boast, these films are not a fun watch. Three deal with the ongoing Syrian conflict, one focuses on the plight of doctors dealing with dying patients in an American ICU and the one film of the five that could be considered “uplifting” is still basically about the Holocaust. In short, probably not a good date night at the movies.
Program A (Running time: 72 minutes)
Extremis. Director: Dan Krauss. Country: USA. 24 min. Krauss’ brief film is relatable in some very uncomfortable ways, following Dr. Jessica Zitter as she walks families through the difficult decisions confronting them when their loved ones are faced death in a modern hospital. The option to keep patients alive indefinitely is a relatively modern problem, but the varying responses faced by Zitter are timeless. The conflicts inherent to the issue are personalized in an engaging way, as Krauss shows Zitter confronted by not only the families of her patients but also fellow doctors as she remains (mostly) composed while struggling to present the facts as even-handedly as possible. It probably won’t take this year’s award, but Extremis is a fascinating look behind the curtain of the burden shouldered by medical professionals on a daily basis.
4.1 Miles. Director: Daphne Matziaraki. Country: USA-Greece. 22 min. While the similarities with feature length doc Fire at Sea (also nominated for an Oscar this year) are hard to overlook, 4.1 Miles is its own beast. The first of this year’s short docs to deal with the Syrian immigration crisis, 4.1 Miles takes its title from the distance between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos over treacherous open ocean, a popular route for unscrupulous smugglers to sneak Syrian refugees into Greece. Matziaraki’s film focuses exclusively on Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos as he makes trip after trip pulling dozens of refugees out of the icy Aegean waters, many of them children on the verge of death. The unflinching, fly-on-the wall immediacy of Matziaraki’s camera only adds to the unnerving tension of her subject, and the lack of sermonizing leaves the audience with some tough questions to confront. This one is also unlikely to win, but not for lack of a riveting subject.
Joe’s Violin. Director: Kahane Cooperman. Country: USA. 24 min. This is the closest thing to an upbeat film among this year’s nominees, and its saccharinity makes it oddly obtrusive in the context of its competition. Former Daily Show EP Cooperman traces the story of a Holocaust survivor whose beloved violin was donated to a public radio instrument drive, from there making its way into the hands of a young girl in one of the most economically underprivileged congressional districts in the nation. While the premise is indeed heartwarming, the execution is a bit too self-congratulatory and lacking in substance. It might be my least favorite of this year’s films, which means it probably has a good chance of winning.
Program B (Running time: 82 minutes)
Watani: My Homeland. Director: Marcel Mettelsiefen. Country: UK. 39 min. The second film covering the Syrian Civil War, director Mettelsiefen’s film follows a family displaced from Aleppo after their patriarch, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army is captured by Daesh (ISIS) and presumed dead. Mettelsiefen follows the family for close to three years as they immigrate to a small town in Germany and begin a new life. As an emotional portrait of the psychological turmoil inherent to civilians displaced by armed conflict and children raised under the specter of war, I can’t think of many films that rival Watani for its sheer impact — a natural outgrowth of seeing the resiliency of three young siblings forced to grow up under nearly impossible circumstances embraced by their new homeland.
The White Helmets. Director: Orlando von Einsiedel. Country: USA. 41 min. To my mind the most accomplished technical work in contention, The White Helmets showcases the titular Nobel Prize nominated group of Syrian civilian first responders saving lives at the risk of their own. Von Einsiedel gets in the middle of the action before following his subjects to a training camp in Turkey, where their heroic nature is challenged by being removed from their families and communities, still very much in jeopardy. This virtuosic piece of filmaking goes beyond lionizing its subjects, delving into the ways in which our interconnected work has changed the way people engage with modern warfare. The White Helmets would be my pick for the award, but it’s going to face stiff competition from Watani and Joe’s Violin.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.