It’s an extraordinary group of short documentaries that received Oscar nominations this year, and I’m having a tough time picking a favorite, a best, or a guess about which will win the Academy Award. I am partial to stories about women, however, and in particular about the special hardships that women face because of our gender, so I’m gonna throw my hopes for a win behind “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” [IMDb | official site], from Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (who won this same Oscar in 2012 for her short doc “Saving Face”). This is a horrifying story of an attempted “honor killing” in Gujranwala, Pakistan… which is no rural backwater but a city of five million people. When 19-year-old Saba refused to marry her uncle’s brother-in-law and secretly married Qaiser, the man she really loved — whom her family had rejected as unsuitable because he was too poor — her father and her uncle shot her in the face and tossed her in a river, as punishment for defying her father’s authority and for bringing “dishonor” to the family. She survived… but that was only the beginning of her ordeal. Saba has male cops and lawyers on her side, who deem her brave and are incensed by the injustice and want to prosecute her attackers for attempted murder, but Saba has to live in a world in which her friends, family (including her new in-laws), and neighbors all accept that men’s honor and respect is tied up in women’s behavior. Obaid-Chinoy masterfully paints a portrait of a culture that believes itself totally justified for killing women who defy men, and yet even the filmmaker’s rage — see the scene in which she confronts Saba’s father — becomes subsumed in the dispiriting account of how such customs are perpetuated, even in the 21st century. (A production of HBO Documentary Films, this will debut on the cable channel in March.)
In a similar vein, though one with a more hopeful air, is “Body Team 12” [IMDb | official site], from American filmmaker and journalist David Darg. In Liberia, Garmai Sumo is the only woman on her team of workers tasked with collecting the bodies of those killed by the Ebola virus so they can be safely cremated. It’s absolutely essential work if the spread of the virus is to be halted… but it violates in almost every way it could the culture’s very specific customs for the handling of the dead, which leaves Sumo and her coworkers open to abuse and dramatic social stigma. In a challenging environment, Darg finds an unlikely balance between the downright apocalyptic nature of Sumo’s work and the spirit she resolutely embodies, one full of confidence for the future of her country. I also like Sumo’ insistence that yes, there are very good reasons why women are needed in such a nasty job that is generally considered the exclusive domain of men. (This one is also from HBO Documentary Films, also debuting in March).
More social stigma, more abuse, more hope in the face of it all comes in “Chau, Beyond the Lines” [IMDb | official site], from American documentarian Courtney Marsh. Here we meet Chau, who lives in Ho Chi Minh in a home for children affected by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war, who refuses to let his terrible physical deformities — including very weak arms and hands — stop him from pursuing his dream of being an artist and fashion designer. Shooting over the course of eight years, Marsh follows the charmingly irrepressible Chau from his mid teens to his mid 20s as he faces the usual challenges all young people must cope with — from moving out on one’s own for the first time to figuring out how to make career aspirations come true — in addition to the extra difficulties of his disability… not all of which are physical. (He gets a lot of disparagement from the nurses in the kids’ care home, who don’t see how he could possibly make it as an artist.) The ongoing horrors of Agent Orange exposure are always in the background — babies are still being born today who are affected, which I doubt many people realize (I didn’t) — but Marsh delights in showing us how Chau and his adoptive brothers and sisters in the care home are kids first, full of recognizably kid-ish spunk and mischief.
The other nominees are:
• “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” [IMDb | official site], from British journalist Adam Benzine. French filmmaker Lanzmann reflects on the decade-long process of producing his epic 10-hour documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, which was finally released in 1985 and is now considered perhaps the greatest documentary ever made. I haven’t seen Shoah, but this has made it jump way up my to-watch list: Lanzmann’s passion and dedication is extraordinary, and Benzine makes some astute connections between Lanzmann’s struggle to find a way to tell the story of an impossibly huge tragedy with the struggle of the survivors he interviewed to tell of their own personal part in it.(This is another one from HBO Documentary Films, and will debut on HBO in May.)
• “Last Day of Freedom” [IMDb | official site], the first film from artists Dee Hibbert-Jones (who is English) and Nomi Talisman (who is Israeli). A rare animated documentary, it gives voice to Californian Bill Babbitt, brother of Manny Babbitt, who was executed in 1999, nearly 20 years after a murder conviction. With heartbreaking poeticism, Bill tells Manny’s story, from the childhood accident that was only the beginning of a life of pain and damage to the PTSD and mental illness he suffered after several tours of duty in Vietnam. The simple yet haunting rotoscoped animation underscores the bleak reality of the abandonment of military veterans, injustice in the court system (the Babbitts are black), and the cruelty of the death penalty, which punishes not only the criminal but innocent bystanders as well… the loved ones of the executed, that is.