Release Date: February 8, 2019 (Limited)
Directed by: Various (A Night at the Garden by Marshall Curry; Black Sheep by Ed Perkins; End Game by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; Period. End of Sentence by Rayka Zehtabchi; Lifeboat by Skye Fitzgerald)
MPAA Rating: NR
The category of documentary short subjects has always been an arena to spotlight the important topics that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a feature-length film. Their brevity aside, the assembled nominees for this year’s Academy Awards demonstrate the benefits of working with condensed production cycles based on the timeliness of their selected subjects.
The nominees this time around confront enduring stigmas, draw parallels to our political climate from history, surmise personal and global crises, and collectively challenge their audiences’ worldview. Expanding horizons and resisting ignorance seems to be the structuring theme of this year’s collection of shorts.
The shortest of the group was Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden, a political analog that uses archived footage of a “pro-american” rally that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1939, which may look a tad familiar if you’ve been paying attention to CNN. Propping up a clear “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” principle, it’s heavy-handed assembling of a Nazi rally draws a clear audiovisual parallel to the current era and suggests we really shouldn’t be shocked by what we see on a now weekly basis.
The parallel might be shocking at first, to be confronted by how close America truly is to fascist collapse, but it becomes clear how much of a layup this film was for Marshall Curry, whose curatorial and archive skills shine more than his direction. While not saying those aren’t impressive skills for a filmmaker to have, the execution of A Night at the Garden is more reminiscent of a viral AJ+ video than a film.
Ed Perkins’ Black Sheep was the only nominee to experiment with a docufiction approach in retelling the racial strife that constituted the youth of its subject, Cornelius Walker. Sparked by the high-profile manslaughter of Damilola Taylor, Cornelius and his family moved from the London urban center to the more remote Essex, only for the young man to experience a more targeted form of racism than he had never experienced before then.
The talking-head segments of Cornelius recounting his radical attempts to assimilate to his new environment show how engrossing a storyteller both him and director Ed Perkins can be. Heavily linked to his point of view as the maturity of his adulthood runs a commentary over his youthful exposure to systemic racism, the film’s competence in linking you with Cornelius’’ trails and experiences is undeniable.
By far the most sobering and disquieting of the nominees was Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s End Game, a Netflix-acquired intimate exploration of hospice care that attempts to break down the unfortunate stigmas surrounding the practice. Singling out several patients of Dr. Bruce Miller’s Zen Hospice Project, the film articulates the challenges that come with cultivating a death-positive attitude and reclaiming one’s end of life as a natural, human experience. Though refreshingly candid with its subjects as they attempt to come to terms with mortality, the raw, revelatory power of Epstein and Friedman’s film comes at the end when you become quite aware that each subject had understandably passed on since filming.
Continuing the theme of breaking stigmas was Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of Sentence, which hopes to buck the cultural and traditional taboos of menstruation in a rural village outside of Delhi by empowering its women residents to essentially own it. Zehtabchi follows one mission of the Pad Project, a nonprofit that installs machines that manufacture sanitary pads in remote locations, and how the subjects of Period are encouraged to educate themselves while producing and marketing their own brand of pad.
Though heartfelt and well-meaning, Zehtabchi’s style relies heavily on showiness and repeating morals which detract from the flow of the film. I don’t mean to detract from the importance of the Pad Project or dismantling these engrained taboos, I just feel there was a way to explore the issue that doesn’t feel so stagy and artificial.
The program ends with another profile of a non-profits’s mission to better the world in the form of Sea-watch and their ongoing struggles to rescue the refugees who bravely attempt to sail their way to a new world. Featuring a poetic and flowing presentation crossed with a discomforting DIY verisimilitude, Skye Fitzgerald’s Lifeboat follows a crew of Sea-watch as they prowl the seas for incoming refugees on makeshift rafts. While offering bleak but humanizing interviews with several belaboured migrants from all over the world, the film masterfully sells you on the severity of Sea-watches mission which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. By far the nominee with the most relevancy to the present political climate and the discourse therein, Lifeboat provokes audiences into wisened empathy with the realities and hardships of the travelling refugees experience without ever veering into the realm of exploitation.