The films nominated for Best Short Documentary may be the ones most people are likely to see because they often find their way to PBS, or (as is the case with three of this year’s nominees) are HBO documentaries and will be playing there. The short documentaries often are very personal stories that allow us to see important issues. The nominees this year introduce us to people who have serious struggles yet have managed to move beyond the struggles to find some meaning or happiness.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (Pakistan, 40 minutes, directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy). Every year more than a thousand women are victims of “honor killings”. After 18 year old Saba eloped with her boyfriend, her father and uncle found her, shot her, and dumped her in a river. She managed to survive with serious injuries. After the father and uncle were arrested, the pressure put upon her to publicly forgive them (so they could be released) was tremendous. While we generally consider forgiveness to be something of value, the way it is portrayed in this film makes us consider if perhaps justice should carry more importance in some situations—especially when forgiveness is used as a way to avoid justice. A Girl in the River will premiere on HBO in March.
Body Team 12 (Liberia, 13 minutes, directed by David Darg and Bryn Mooser). Garmai Sumo is a Liberian woman who is part of a team that went through Monrovia, the national capital, collecting the bodies of those who died of Ebola. It was dangerous work, because of the way the disease spreads and because of the reaction of relatives who want to bury their loved ones. We see the terrible epidemic through Garmai’s eyes and heart. She does this work because she loves her country and wants to make it safe. While this is a film that has a great deal of death, it is worth noting that the opening lines we hear Garmai speak are about Resurrection. Even in the face of such tragedy, we get a glimpse of faith that is part of what drives her. Body Team 12 will premiere on HBO in March.
Chau, Beyond the Lines (US/Vietnam, 34 minutes, directed by Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck). In the 1960s and 1970s, the US poured millions of gallons of defoliant on Vietnam, including one designated Agent Orange. The results of that are still being felt there in birth defects caused by the still present chemical. Fifteen year old Chau is one of those who has been so affected. He has lived most of his life in a facility for those with Agent Orange caused birth defects. He dreams of being an artist, but his disabilities will make that a challenge. He longs to have a useful and independent life, but can he find a way to fulfill his dreams?
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (Canada/US/UK, 40 minutes, directed by Adam Benzine). The massive documentary Shoah was twelve years in the making and ended up with a ten hour running time. It is the definitive documentary on the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann is the director behind that epic film. He reflects about some of what drove him to make such a film and the trials involved. We see only small pieces of the final work, but Lanzmann’s commentary gives a new perspective on Shoah. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah will premiere on HBO in May.
Last Day of Freedom (US, 32 minutes, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman). When Bill Babbitt discovered evidence that his brother Manny committed a crime, he turned him into the police, even though it might mean the death penalty. It was an agonizing decision, but for Bill it was the right things to do. Last Day of Freedom is an interview with Bill Babbitt (converted to line-drawing animation) about his brother, his decision, and the consequences. This is a powerful and heart wrenching narrative about love, justice, forgiveness, and about the ways that we may have failed to live up to the higher calls of compassion in the cases of those who fallen through the cracks of society.
For me, there is a very clear choice to the top of this category. Last Day of Freedom held me spellbound as I heard Bill tell the story of his brother Manny and of his own sorrow over so many things along the way that lead to the events. All short docs make us care about the people at the center of the films, but Last Day of Freedom pulls us into the bond between brothers in a way that may be surprising. I think the intimacy we feel with Bill is enhanced by the choice to use animation as the visual medium. It is an exemplary piece of work.