Three of the five short documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year are chapters in the same larger ongoing story: the Syrian refugee exodus. Together they offer stunningly intimate observations on the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, putting faces to the horrors and bringing the tragedy of it home in ways we simply have not seen before.
I would give the Oscar in a three-way tie to all of them, but that would be unprecedented. So my pick for the very best of them is “4.1 Miles” [IMDb|official site], the first film from Greek journalist Daphne Matziaraki. She has already won a Student Academy Award for this absolutely shattering verité look at the work of Greek coast guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos and the crew of his small boat as they pluck wretched refugees, some half dead, from overcrowded dinghies or directly from the waters of the strait between their home island of Lesbos and the Turkish mainland four miles off. “It’s a nightmare,” Papadopoulos says with grief and exhaustion, and we experience it: the raw human desperation, the terror and chaos, the wails of fear, the shivering children. It is devastating and totally heart-crushing, both the utter and complete human disaster and the attempts to allay it… though the resources of Papadopoulos’s tiny island are overwhelmed by it. The onslaught of agony is rendered all the more intolerable to notions of justice and dignity when you know that everything we see here is taking place on one single day. [Watch “4.1 Miles” online now at The New York Times.]
“4.1 Miles” is very good at underscoring the certainty that no one would willingly endure such horrors — or subject their children to them — on a whim. And the second nominee in the accidental Syrian trilogy shows us what they are running from. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, “The White Helmets” [IMDb|official site] introduces us to the members of a volunteer rescue squad in Aleppo (chapters exist in other Syrian cities, too): when the barrel bombs and missiles fall, they’re the ones running into damaged buildings to pull survivors, if there are any, from the rubble, with no surety that the bombing is actually over. These are ordinary men whose previous ordinary jobs — one used to be a blacksmith; another was in construction — no longer exist in the crumbling, increasingly desolate city, so they’ve gone to work at this new one, often with no formal training in rescue. Through their eyes, we are offered an extraordinary view on the war — one says, plainly but with resignation, that the regime and its Russian military support “are targeting civilians” — and on how close normality is: On a training mission into peaceful southern Turkey, one White Helmet marvels at what a difference a border makes. These are amazing men doing incredibly dangerous work, pushing aside their own fears for their own families to save others, and all because they, to a one, are genuine in the steadfast belief that the lives of their neighbors as just as valuable as their own. [Watch “The White Helmets” online now at Netflix.]
By comparison, the third Syrian-themed nominee is almost cheerful. “Watani: My Homeland” [IMDb|official site], from award-winning documentarian Marcel Mettelsiefen, follows one family’s refugee odyssey from ruined Aleppo — where they are squeezed in by the Syrian government’s troops on one side and ISIS fighters on the other — to a small town in Germany. Dad Ali is a soldier with the rebels who worries that he has sacrificed too much, including his children’s safety, for the revolution, and soon it becomes necessary for mom Hala to flee with their four children. The universalities of human experience across culture and religion come to the fore here: the resilience of the kids, who grow from being able to identify different bombs and missiles by their sounds they make as they fall to playing innocently and freely in the wide open and quiet streets of their new German hometown; the hopes of parents, such as Hala’s fierce belief that her children will one day return to Syria to rebuild their homeland. Littlest Sara imagines dolphins on the beach in Germany; Hala sighs upon arriving in this charming little European village that “there isn’t a single shelled house.” That the latter should seem almost as dreamlike as the former is a bittersweet reminder of the safety we take for granted.
The other nominees are:
• “Extremis” [IMDb|official site], from documentarian Dan Krauss (who has been previously nominated in this category). Here we see doctors, patients, and families struggling with the ethics of end-of-life treatment in the intensive care unit at a California hospital. When machines are the only thing keeping a body going, the decision about how far to let someone linger — and, perhaps, suffer — is an agonizing one. This is such an intense and controversial topic that it could do with a deeper exploration, but as a peek at the precarious furthest edges of human existence, it is aching and searing. [Watch “Extremis” online now at Netflix.]
• “Joe’s Violin” [IMDb|official site], from filmmaker Kahane Cooperman. The only truly feel-good entry among the nominees (which could give it a winning edge among the otherwise heavy doc shorts), this is the tale of a musical instrument donated by a Holocaust survivor in New York City to a schoolgirl in the Bronx who has come through her own tribulations. The friendship that blossoms between this unlikely pair is a wonderful testament to the power of music to sustain us through the most difficult of trials, and the power that music has to draw us together across seemingly vast gulfs. [Watch “Joe’s Violin” online now at The New Yorker.]
See the official site for showtimes and locations across the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere around the planet, and for VOD outlets starting on February 21st.