There is so much inhumanity on display in the five short documentaries nominated for the Oscar this year. Of the “man’s inhumanity to man” kind, that is. Immediately after I finished watching these five films, I was incredibly depressed at what I had seen: so much grief, so much suffering, so much pain: physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological. But there is also much resilience, much hope, much intimacy of the sort that engenders empathy. We may presume that it is the hope of the filmmakers that the empathy they so beautifully depict will inspire us to end those injustices we see here that are still ongoing, and prevent those in the past, whose legacies endure to this day, from occurring again.
Perhaps the nominee that best encapsulates that complicated and contradictory experience — and the one I think will win the Oscar — is “Hunger Ward” [IMDb|official site], from American filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald. (His short “Lifeboat” was nominated in this same category two years ago.) This is an absolutely unvarnished vérité look at the — my god — “therapeutic feeding wards” in two Yemeni hospitals. Children are starving to death in Yemen, you see, an entirely manmade humanitarian crisis that has barely registered in the West. Here we meet two incredibly dedicated health-care workers, Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi, who are doing what they can for the pathetically malnourished children who come to their hospitals. Some have developed gluten allergies because literally all they have been eating is wheat donated by aid groups. Some are too weak to play, to talk, or even, it seems, to cry. Fitzgerald eschews politics to focus on the personal toll this disaster is taking on parents, children, and medics… until the very end, when he drops the metaphoric bombshell that Western nations, including the US and the UK, are complicit in this catastrophe. Which almost goes without saying, given the West’s long history of not giving a shit about things happening in faraway lands to nonwhite people. Can even the attention of an Oscar nomination or win make a difference? (The film’s official site has information on how we can help.) Or will this just be another instance of us congratulating ourselves on how aware we are of our crimes while doing nothing to stop them and make reparations?
The other nominees:
• “Colette” [IMDb|official site], which I’d also give short odds of winning the Oscar. This deeply upsetting short, from American documentarian Anthony Giacchino, opens with the warning that “viewers may find the content of this film distressing,” but that doesn’t quite play out in the way I was expecting it to. Herein we meet Colette Marin-Catherine, a 90-year-old French woman who fought in the anti-Nazi resistance as a child, with her entire badass family, during World War II, only to see her teenaged brother arrested by the Germans and deported to a concentration camp, where he was killed. Now, for the first time, Colette has agreed to visit the site of that camp, accompanied by Lucie Fouble, a young woman studying the Holocaust. Yes, there are the usual, almost slightly clichéd terrible photos of emaciated corpses from the Nazi times — and of course those are harrowing, but I was steeled for that. What I was not ready for was Colette herself, one of the most amazing and inspiring people I’ve ever met onscreen, and how her stoicism and her practicality crumble in the presence, even if only a ghostly one, of true evil. And I was not ready for sweet Lucie, and her dedication to ensuring that these unfortunately all-too-imaginable horrors are not forgotten. I am constantly astonished that, for all the stories we’ve told about WWII and Nazi atrocities, we have not yet exhausted all the possible angles on them. Here is another fresh one.
[stream globally at The Guardian]
• “Do Not Split” [IMDb|official site], from Norwegian journalist Anders Hammer, is a firsthand, on-the-ground, in-the-streets view of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong… which are only on pause at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s so incendiary that China was all, “Yup, we shall ban all broadcasts of the Oscars within our borders this year.” This is students sacrificing their studies, potentially their futures, to ensure that their city retains its voice of the people. This is cops tear-gassing elderly people — and not-so-elderly people — who remember what Hong Kong was like before “the British handed us over to China like a bag of potatoes” in 1997, as one activist describes it. (It’s an assessment that is harsh but fair: Hong Kong is another place that has been left by the West to its own devices.) This is an unarmed woman yelling at cops in the street to put their guns down. The title — “Do Not Split” — is a reference to the protesters’ insistence that they stick together, that they not split up. Can the West stand with Hong Kong?
[stream globally at Field of Vision]
• “A Love Song for Latasha” [IMDb|official site], a remarkably accomplished first film by American filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison, is a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness elegy for Latasha Harlins, who was killed in South Central Los Angeles 30 years ago at only 15 years old. We’re so used to seeing films about racist murders in America, as this one was, focusing on the horror and the terror of someone’s final moments, and while that is, sadly and enragingly, often key to engendering sympathy, Allison here focuses on the lost promise of Harlins’s life and the lingering impact on those who loved her, and still mourn her loss. This is a stunningly poignant portrait of the ethos behind Black Lives Matter, that ordinary people shouldn’t require anything more than the fact of their basic humanity for their lives to be valuable.
[stream globally on Netflix]
• “A Concerto Is a Conversation” [IMDb], a collaboration between Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot and American musical composer Kris Bowers, is the most upbeat of the nominees. But even this one has a dark undertone that springs from a heritage of oppression and the escape from it. Bowers, who has scored films including Green Book, is about to debut his new concerto in Los Angeles, and he shares the hopes and fears that accompany this new step in his career and creativity with his grandfather, a Black man who left Jim Crow–era Florida for what he hoped would be better opportunities elsewhere, and ended up in California. Bowers and his grandfather, Horace, are charming, and this short is a conversation, too, between the two men, between the past and the present, and between hope and realization.
[stream globally at The New York Times]