2016 Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

This year the Oscar-nominated short documentary films all address uncomfortable subject matter that most people don’t want to talk about. While each film tackles a different subject, themes of death, the forgotten, and the outsider are present in each one of these works. But these short subject documentaries are not all doom and gloom; hope, perseverance, and the triumph of the human will make their appearances as well. They nominees are:

Body Team 12: . Directed by David Darg and produced by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, this film from Liberia is the shortest of all of the nominees in this category with a run time of 13 minutes. However, in that short amount of time, Darg tells the story of one of the body teams in Liberia who pick up the dead who have fallen victim to the Ebola epidemic. The story is told through the perspective of the only female member of the team.

The body team has one of the most dangerous jobs, but they also view it as an important and valued service to both their beloved country of Liberia and God. While at first glance, the task of picking up the corpses of Ebola victims may appear straightforward, the audience is quickly reminded that these corpses are somebody’s mother, father, brother, sister, friend, or child. And because Ebola is such a contagious and horrific disease, the bodies must be taken away and cremated at a remote facility. Therefore, family and friends are left in their grief without the ability to gain closure by burying their loved one as they are want to do.

The film reveals that families not only fight the Body Team over the removal of their loved one, but have also threatened them with bodily harm. But the team knows that they must use finesse and compassion in order to convince the families to release the body in an effort to save the rest of the family and the rest of the country from the devastating spread of Ebola.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah: Directed by Adam Benzine and produced by Adam Benzine, Halim Benzine, Nick Fraser, Kelsey Irvine, Alex Ordanis, and Kimberly Warner, This film is a short retrospective of Claude Lanzmann and his making of Shoah, the ten-hour film about the Holocaust which has been considered the most important film about the Holocaust ever made. It is from the United States and runs 40 minutes.

This documentary features interviews with Lanzmann and never-before-seen, behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Shoah. Lanzmann discusses his personal struggle with making the film and how he almost killed himself before its completion since he could not make the film in the way the studio wanted. Shoah features interviews Lanzmann did with Nazis who were active participants of the Holocaust. In order to get these interviews, Lanzmann made up a fictional historical society and posed as one of its members.

In Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, Lanzmann recounts the day he and his female assistant went to interview a Nazi and were caught and severely beaten. Lanzmann is reluctant to tell the story, but finally gives in and gives the audience a clearer picture of the perils that he faced in making his masterpiece.

This film is a short but interesting portrait of both the filmmaker and what is considered to be his greatest work. While I enjoyed this film and it made me want to see Shoah, I believe it appeals to a much more select audience then the other films nominated this year. While I understood the film, I feel like this documentary would have had more impact on me if I had more previous knowledge about Shoah as well as Lanzmann.

A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness: From Emmy- and Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, this film is from Pakistan and has a run time of 42 minutes. It tells the story about Saba, the rare survivor of what is known in Pakistan as an honor-killing. When a woman brings dishonor to her family, it has become culturally acceptable for the woman to be killed in order to return honor to the family. These killings are carried out by male relatives and are often not documented or prosecuted. In the case of The Girl in the River, it was Saba’s uncle and father who try and murder her and restore “honor” to the family.

Remarkably, after being shot, placed in a bag, and thrown into the river, Saba survives the attempt on her life. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness explores the search for justice within the confines of Saba’s community and Islamic patriarchy. This film is a powerful story about hope and survival in the midst of radical belief where the concept of sin is flipped on its head.

Chau Beyond the Lines: This co-production from the United States and Vietnam was directed by Courtney Marsh and produced by Marsh and Jerry Franck. It has a run time of 34 minutes.

The film documents the life of Chau, a young man disabled by the long-lasting effects of the deadly chemical Agent Orange that the United States dropped on Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Decades later, Chau’s mother drank from an Agent Orange-poisoned river while she was pregnant with him and Chau was born with severe birth defects that cause him to have great difficulty using his arms and legs. Because of his disabilities, Chau lives in a hospital with other children who have been crippled and hurt by the modern-day effects of Agent Orange. However, Chau’s disabilities do not stop him from dreaming about becoming a professional artist.

Chau Beyond the Lines is not only about the determination of a young man but also about the long-lasting effects of American military action on people in other countries. Even after more than 40 years since the incident, Vietnamese citizens are still being devastated by this chemical. Chau is just one of many whose life has been detrimentally effected by the actions of the United States during the Vietnam War.

Last Day of Freedom: Directed and produced by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, this animated documentary from the United States has a run time of 32 minutes.

Last Day of Freedom tells the story of Manny Babbitt, a Vietnam Veteran suffering from PTSD. After his PTSD is triggered during a night out, Manny commits murder during his Vietnam flashback. Bill Babbitt, Manny’s brother, serves as the film’s narrator, telling Manny’s story from childhood through his execution for the murder of Leah Schendel. Besides being Manny’s brother, Bill also reveals that he was the reason that Manny was ever caught for Leah Schendel’s murder.

While Last Day of Freedom is a very personal story, the documentary also addresses the issues of PTSD and who is really responsible when veterans suffering from such debilitating conditions commit devastating acts. This film also explores questions about how the death penalty and mental illness should and do interact.

All five of these films deserve nominations. However, after watching them, I believe it will come down to two in this category, Body Team 12 and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Each film is equally powerful and I wish both could win an Academy Award but my prediction is that A Girl in the River will take home the Oscar though.

The 2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Live Action, Animation, and Documentary) are currently playing in theatres, giving you the opportunity to see the nominated films before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 28th.

Darcy Staniforth

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