'The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary, Program A': Film Review

JOANNA still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shorts HD

JOANNA still - H 2015

Tough subject matter is handled with care and, occasionally, beauty

Two docs champion those who face death bravely

Death looms in very different ways over the two featurettes in this program of Oscar-nominated short docs — as an option that distraught veterans contemplate embracing voluntarily, and as an outcome a young mother struggles to prevent even as she makes her peace with it. Quite different in approach and tone, the films complement each other well, even if they won't make for the happiest Friday night ever for moviegoers.

In the HBO-produced Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry find a strong perspective from which to view much-discussed issues of veterans' mental health. An upstate New York call center houses the Veterans Crisis Line, the only facility fielding calls from vets at risk of self-harm. A fifth of American suicides each year (an average of 22 per day) are people with military backgrounds, we're told, and this 250-person facility sometimes gets as many as 22,000 calls a month.

Focusing on procedural details in a way that heightens drama, we watch sympathetic operators talking to troubled callers — gently reminding each of the children and spouses who need them while instant-messaging with emergency coordinators who, a few feet away, will share information with police and EMT teams if necessary. It's an inspiring blend of efficiency and compassion that not only copes with high-stakes encounters but provides post-call comfort for the operators themselves. The filmmakers smartly edit just a couple of interactions and a handful of statistics into something conveying a broader history of psychic scars.

Aneta Kopacz's Joanna goes the opposite direction, focusing on small personal details in its fly-on-wall portrait of a woman intent on sharing as much life as possible with her son while she fights a terminal illness. The precocious boy and his wry, if fatigued, mom share beautiful moments of everyday philosophy with each other as we watch; these gently happy encounters get more emphasis than private scenes, out of the boy's earshot, in which Joanna unselfpityingly shares her physical pain with her husband.

Musically and photographically, the film is perfectly sensitive in depicting what may be the last months this family has together. The film is natural-feeling enough that viewers may not pause to marvel at the generosity Kopacz's subjects are demonstrating toward us, allowing filmmakers to intrude on their lives when the preciousness of each hour is impossible to ignore.


Production company: Shorts HD

Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nelson


No rating, 84 minutes