When it is time to award the best in films each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences include three categories of short films in their Oscar presentations. Most people don’t get to see many shorts. They play at festivals, and occasionally in front of a feature film. But short films are an art form worth attention. Many (probably most) feature filmmakers started out making short film. To tell a story in such a brief format takes skill. All the Oscar-nominated short films will be playing in theaters in special programs. To see where the films will be playing near you, go to https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/theatrical-release/
Here is a look at the five Oscar-nominated short documentaries.
In Black Sheep (UK, 27 minutes, directed by Ed Perkins) a family of Nigerian immigrants moves out of London after another Nigerian boy is killed. Eleven year old Cornelius then discovers their new home is full of violent racists as well. After being beaten, he decides to become more like those who attacked him. He wears blue contact lenses and bleaches his skin. Soon he is accepted by the others, but then he is now part of the violence against blacks. How can he be true to his real identity? The film is told by a now adult Cornelius. His reflections are engrossing as he describes what he became at that time.
My reaction: Something about this film stirred something within me. I could not imagine someone becoming the very thing that injured him, especially to the extent that he did so. I had to take a walk after screening this film to try to clear that imagery and the emotions it brought up for me. That is the power this film held for me.
“We don’t run away from hard stuff. We don’t run away from suffering.” In End Game (USA, 40 minutes, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) we go inside two San Francisco institutions that care for the dying: UCSF Medical Center’s Palliative Care Team and the Zen Hospice Project. This is not just a story of hospice care, it shows some of the difficult decisions patients and families face and we hear them and the doctor and other professionals working through those decisions.
My reaction: This is indeed about facing the hard stuff. With death no longer a remote possibility, patients and families often struggle with how they want to spend those last months, weeks, days. The filmmakers treated these stories with respect and compassion. I’m especially grateful for the patients and families that were willing to allow this film to show this most difficult, emotional, and intimate time. This is my favorite among the nominees. End Game is a Netflix film and is currently available to stream.
Lifeboat (USA, 34 minutes, directed by Skye Fitzgerald) focuses on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean by going with volunteers from the German non-profit Sea-Watch to search for and rescue boatloads of African refugees. In the film they encounter boats filled with about 1000 refugees—boats with no water or power. These are people who have been terribly exploited and are further exploited by the traffickers who have set them adrift. It is not a simple task to rescue them in an orderly fashion. But it is an act of great humanity and compassion. As one of them notes, when you see a crisis at a distance, you see a mass of people. When you get close, you see individuals.
My reaction: A note at the end of the film tells us that 1 out of 18 people who attempt to cross the Mediterranean will drown. When we hear about immigration crises, we often think in terms of the mass of people. (And some would encourage us to fear that mass.) This film reminds us that the crisis is about people who often see the possibility of drowning as preferable to the atrocities of the lives they are trying to escape. Each person—each individual—is a beloved child of God. We should learn to treat them as such.
Patriotism is front and center in A Night at the Garden (USA, 7 minutes, directed by Marshall Curry). It shows archival footage of a “Pro American Rally” held at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1039. There were American flags, a huge portrait of George Washington, many Brown Shirts, and Nazi salutes. Just seven months before the start of World War II, 20,000 Nazi supporters were making the case that Americans should support Hitler’s policies. The antisemitism of this group is obvious when we hear speakers. It serves as a reminder that America has often had those who do not accept the diversity that has made the country what it is.
My reaction: A little bit of background would have been helpful. When we hear speakers in the footage, they are always speaking with an accent. This particular rally was held by the German-American Bund. It was a wide-spread movement, but never a particularly large group. But since white supremacy has been become more visible in recent years, it’s worth noting that it has been with us a very long time. That is not to say we should tolerate it, but rather to be sure not to treat it as passing fad.
Girls in India may not have access to what we would think of as basic supplies for menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. (USA, 26 minutes, directed by Rayka Zehtabchi) shows us the dilemma this causes in rural areas, where sometimes girls are shamed to the point of quitting school. The answer put forward here is a machine that allows women in such areas to manufacture and sell inexpensive pads made from local materials. In the process, it provides employment and empowerment for the women involved.
My reaction: First World people often can’t imagine that something like menstruation could create such issues. But when ignorance about such a normal thing (which we see early in the film) exists, it will inevitably cause problems for those who have the least power to fight against it. It is interesting to see something as commonplace (for us) as a menstrual pad to be able to bring such change to lives.