2019 Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

For over a decade, ShortsTV has proudly brought the Oscar-nominated Short Films to audiences across the globe. This exclusive release features the year’s most spectacular short films and for a limited time is available to watch on the big screen. Each nominee is released in one of three distinct feature-length compilations according to their category of nomination: Live Action, Animation, or Documentary.

The films go into theaters around the world on February 8 and are not released anywhere else until a few days before the Oscars, when they are also made available February 19 via on demand platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and Vimeo on Demand. The release ensures the greatest number of viewers can see all the nominees before the ceremony, while providing short filmmakers with an unprecedented opportunity to commercialize their movies.

The Documentary Short nominees this year address topics and themes that have been explored in previous Oscar-nominated shorts. That is not to say that these filmmakers are just remaking older documentaries. However, this is important to point out because this indicates that the same injustices and needs still exist in the world and must continue to be addressed. This year’s nominees deal with anti-Semitic ideology, the refugee crisis, racism, end of life care, and women’s rights. All five are powerful offerings that will leave viewers struggling to choose between the importance of all five subjects.

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A Night at the Garden (Marshall Curry, USA, 7 minutes)

This film is the shortest of all five nominees with a run-time of only seven minutes. However, director Marshall Curry has compiled archival footage of the American Nazi “Pro-American” rally that took place at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939, just seven months before Nazi forces invaded Poland. The rally attracted 20,000 people to the Garden that night to hear Fritz Kuhn speak and to rally around what those attendees considered “true American” ideals. The music in this film sets the ominous tone of the film while the black and white footage documents a packed house full of men and women championing the Nazi party all while a giant portrait of George Washington adorned the stage surrounded by Nazi flags and iconography. With events like Charlottesville in the not-so-distant past, it is easy to see why A Night at the Garden struck a chord with the Academy.

Period. End of Sentence (Rayka Zehtabchi, Singapore, 26 minutes)

This uplifting documentary takes its audience to the Hapur District in India to investigate how The Pad Project is changing the lives of women for the better through education about menstruation and the benefits and opportunities of their sanitary-pad-making machine. But this film is not about a sales pitch. This documentary explores the fact that outside of first world countries, when a girl gets her period, it can mean the end of her education and perhaps even the end of her life if sanitary supplies are not readily available or easily affordable. And while the women in this film are fighting to be able to learn about their own bodies and to break through the taboo of even talking about menstruation, Period. End of Sentence offers hope about the changes that women are experiencing in regards to their reproductive health.

Black Sheep (Ed Perkins, United Kingdom, 26 minutes)

Dramatic recreation helps tell the story or survival of Cornelius Walker, who grew up as the only black kid in an all-white neighborhood where he faced beatings and over-the-top racism until he figured out how to “fit in.” Walker tells the story in his own words about the drastic measures he took to try and be loved by those around him. From skipping meals to buying the right clothes to bleaching his skin and wearing colored contacts, Walker’s story of survival in a racist world is a powerful one. And while Waker grew up in England, this story could be true for any person of color. Black Sheep is not exploring a young man’s desire to be white, the film is the story of a young man who wants to belong and survive, even if it means denying his own true identity.

End Game (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, USA, 40 minutes)

This moving and emotional documentary follows patients, their families, and their palliative-care teams as they prepare for the end of their lives at UCSF Medical Center and the Zen Hospice Project. End Game explores the options available to patients as they decide on how and where they want to die. This film also sheds light on the difficult choices that patients and family members have to make and the conflict that can arise from the weighing of these choices. A more subtle exploration in the film is the juxtaposition between the patients who die in the hospital and the patients who choose to die at the Zen Hospice Project guest house. While the filmmakers don’t seem to take an overt stand on which they feel is better, the benefits of chosen hospice without the possibility of over medicalization of the hospital seems to shine thorough.

Lifeboat (Skye Fitzgerald, USA, 34 minutes)

The refugee crisis is the subject of the last nominee in this category. Lifeboat begins and ends with scenes of retrieval teams collecting the bodies of drowned refugees off of the shores in Northern Africa. And in the in between, the story of the the German non-profit organization, Sea Watch, emerges. The Sea Watch teams take their boats onto the Mediterranean Sea to rescue refugees fleeing from kidnapping, rape, violence, sex trafficking, and other atrocities. Over a three day period during the filming of Lifeboat, Sea Watch rescued 3,200 people from boats on the Mediterranean. And while these Sea Watch rescues are incredible, they cannot save everyone as the film notes that 1 in every 18 people trying to cross the Mediterranean drown. This documentary explores the refugee crisis through the lens of both the rescuers and the refugees.

To pick a clear winner this year is a difficult call. I think that A Night at the Garden, Black Sheep, and Lifeboat all stand out because they all all addressing topics that are at the forefront of current world politics. And while I loved both Period, End of Sentence and End Game, I do not know if they can complete with the subjects and the topicality of the other three films. I can’t make a clear call this year, so we will have to see who takes home the Oscar.

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Darcy Staniforth

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