From Ebola in Liberia (in a project produced by Olivia Wilde) to honor crimes in Pakistan, these five small films deal with complex and urgent global issues.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 12 years making his landmark nine-hour and 26-minute Holocaust documentary Shoah. British filmmaker Adam Benzine, 33, spent considerably less time researching his doc on Lanzmann and was able to cut its running time to a mere 40 minutes.
Shoah includes new interviews with Lanzmann and some of his admirers as well as (yes) unused footage from his epic film. Lanzmann confesses to Benzine that he was reluctant to start the project in the summer of 1973, knowing the journey would be agonizing and grueling no matter how long it took. He recounts the story of tracking down Abraham Bomba, the notorious Barber of Treblinka, whose job was to cut the hair of women who were about to be taken to the gas chamber for mass execution. In 1975, Lanzmann heard Bomba was living in a Bronx neighborhood, so he went door to door until a woman in a beauty salon poked her head out of a hair-dryer bubble and said she knew where he was.
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman initially planned to create a video installation for museums exploring the impact of the death penalty on families. But when they heard Bill Babbitt tell the agonizing tale of his brother Manny’s life and death (he was executed by the state of California in 1999), they chose to create a standalone 32-minute black-and-white animated film (with splashes of color) that explores issues of veterans care, mental health, racism and criminal justice. Manny was a Vietnam vet with posttraumatic stress disorder who ended up committing a murder. His brother turned him in, assured that the death penalty wouldn’t apply. But it did.
Hilbert-Jones, 54, and Talisman, 49, make what otherwise would be a difficult story considerably more viewable by rendering it using various animation techniques. Bill’s interview, for instance, is animated with simple rotoscope lines, enough to show his suffering. Other scenes shift between a clean canvas and chaotic hand-drawn art to conjure varied emotional states.
"It was literally one of the hardest jobs I've ever seen anybody do," says director David Darg, 38, who follows a unit of Liberian Red Cross workers at the height of the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 as they remove bodies of victims to minimize spread of the virus. The workers walk amid devastation and risk their own lives. Relatives of the dead often refuse to cooperate, angrily trying to hold onto bodies of loved ones for burial rather than the necessary cremation.
"It's painful, so we don't blame them," says Garmai Sumo, a nurse who is the only female member of the team.
Darg and producer Bryn Mooser kept the film (executive produced by actress Olivia Wilde) to 13 minutes in the hope of attracting younger viewers who tend to consume video in nontraditional ways. "Things are moving more online, and distribution is changing to reach out to even shorter forms," says Darg. "We could have easily made a much longer film. We felt what we had at 13 minutes told the story we wanted to tell in the most powerful way we could."
Courtney Marsh didn't go to Vietnam with the idea of making a film about how Agent Orange, the herbicide dumped by U.S. planes during the war (to eliminate forest cover for enemy troops), had on a generation of children who were born with severe birth defects. As a first-year UCLA film student in 2007, she'd gone overseas with a friend to make a documentary about Saigon street kids. But introduced to children disabled by Agent Orange birth defects at a care center, she volunteered and found herself making a film focusing on then-15-year-old Le Minh Chau, who despite his malformed body was determined to become an artist and clothing designer.
"When I first went in, I thought, 'This is horrendous,' " recalls Marsh, 29. "But once you latch onto somebody as no different from yourself — except for maybe a physicality or where they live — I think that's really the beauty of documentary. It's pulling you into such a different world, showing you light in something that you initially thought of as tragedy."
It took Marsh eight years to finish the 40-minute film, mostly because she was waiting for an upbeat ending. She finally got it when she learned from a Facebook message that Chau had found a real home and was selling his paintings.
On a hospital bed in Pakistan lies Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old girl who has been shot in the face and arm by her father and uncle and left in the river to die. It was an attempted "honor killing," one of more than 1,000 a year in the country, done to save her family from losing face after she eloped with a boyfriend without the family's approval. The 40-minute film, produced by Tina Brown and Sheila Nevins, follows Saba's progress as hospital workers mend her body, and diligent police work puts the father and uncle in jail. But Qaiser's ordeal is not over. The perpetrators are unrepentant.
"Whatever we did, we were obliged to do it — she took away our honor," her father righteously tells filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid, 37, who won a 2012 Oscar in the short documentary category for Saving Face, a film on a related topic. Pakistani law allows so-called honor crime attackers to be set free if they are forgiven, and Saba is pressured from all sides, including her family and in-laws, to absolve her father and uncle.