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This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are a harrowing lot. Although there’s at least one uplifting effort — mind you, uplifting in a pass-me-a-tissue way — the five entries will likely have you reaching for your anti-depressant medications. Due to their length (ranging from 13 to 40 minutes), the films are being theatrically showcased in two separate programs.
HBO Documentary Films is the clear winner this year, at least for the number of nominations. Three of the films — Body Team 12, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah — arrive under its auspices, and they’ll all be shown on the channel later this year.
RELEASE DATE Jan 29, 2016
Adam Benzine’s Spectres of the Shoah is an invaluable companion piece to the classic 1985 Holocaust documentary. It features an extensive interview with Lanzmann in which he discusses the nearly twelve-year making of his magnum opus. Outtakes from the original film show the effort Lanzmann put into coaxing responses out of a Jewish survivor as he cuts hair in a Bronx barbershop. At first the subject relates his tragic tale in a cold, detached manner, but as the filmmaker gently presses him further he begins tapping into long-repressed emotions.
“It wasn’t a simple recounting, it was a reliving of the event,” the sympathetic Lanzmann comments.
Benzine uses his subject’s own approach to get Lanzmann to tell the chilling story of how he and his female assistant were physically attacked after they were caught secretly filming an interview with a former Nazi under duplicitous circumstances.
David Darg and Bryn Mooser’s Body Team 12 chronicles the efforts of Garmai Sumo, the only female member of the titular group in Monrovia, Liberia, one of many commissioned to collect the bodies of Ebola victims. It’s dangerous and often unappreciated work, but Sumo tackles it with a dedication and resolve that is admirable to behold.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Girl in the River, from Pakistan, relates the infuriating story of an 18-year-old woman who was shot in the face and nearly killed by her father and uncle because she dared to elope with the man she loved. The culprits were arrested and are seen in interviews from their jail cells.
“If you put one drop of piss in a bottle of milk it will be destroyed,” the unrepentant father, who prides himself on being an “honorable man,” says. He adds that if he had the opportunity he would have killed his daughter’s husband as well.
Under pressure from village elders, the victim decides to forgive her attackers, motivated far more by pragmatism than charity. Even if found guilty, the men would have served prison sentences of only a few years, and when they were released they would certainly have gone after her again. His honor restored, the father is now content to let bygones be bygones.
Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s Last Day of Freedom produces similar feelings of outrage. It features an extended interview with Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny murdered a woman and was executed in 1999 after being imprisoned for nearly 20 years. It was Bill who turned him in, but the tragic story is made more complex by the fact that Manny was a war veteran who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. His trial was deeply flawed, with his public-appointed lawyer admitting to often being drunk and having “failed completely in the death-penalty phase.”
The film could almost as easily have been nominated in the animation category, since it’s entirely animated, using a rotoscoping technique that give the proceedings the feel of a tragic fable.
Assuming you have any tears left, you’ll certainly shed them during Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck’s Chau, Beyond the Lines, profiling the titular Vietnamese teenager living in a care center for children born with birth defects caused by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Despite being severely deformed, Chau dreams of being an artist, training himself to paint by holding the brush with his teeth. He eventually manages to achieve his dream and is even able to support himself financially through his art.
“I have actually been very, very lucky in my life so far,” he says toward the end of the film. Keep that in mind the next time you feel sorry for yourself because you’re stuck in traffic.
Production: Shorts HD
Program A: 87 minutes
Program B: 76 minutes
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