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

WHITE EARTH still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shorts HD

WHITE EARTH still - H 2015

Three docs address sometimes grim scenes with smart photography

They're tough jobs, but these doc subjects do 'em

Only a touch less forlorn than their death-haunted counterparts in Program A, the subjects of the Oscar-nominated short documentaries in Program B include men who kill for a living and parents envisioning a lifetime of dependency for their newborn. The three films here, all under a half-hour long, are enlivened by smart and sometimes lovely cinematography, and will likely inspire arguments among moviegoers about which short doc will win the prize.

The most divisive of all the shorts in contention will likely be Our Curse, about a young Polish couple whose unborn child has a life-threatening condition requiring the use of a mechanical respirator for the rest of his life. Too-frequent shots frame the miserable couple from below as they sit drinking and smoking on the couch, and some viewers will be inclined to judge them for wallowing in self-pity. We start to share their suffering, though, after the baby is born: Deeply upsetting footage of the infant trying but being unable to cry, while the surgical hole in his throat opens and closes, drives home the palpable nature of their burden.

The Reaper is more generous with graphic images, though it deploys the most disturbing one judiciously. A portrait of a Mexican slaughterhouse employee, it spends most of its time in his workplace, carefully framing shots of cows as they trot unwittingly into the pen where he will deliver the killing blow. He has killed 500 a day for 25 years, and through both his narration and sunny scenes of him at home with his family, we come to understand his acceptance of this grisly job. Director Gabriel Serra Arguello may make few concessions to the vegetarians in the audience, who may want to step out during these 29 minutes, but he manages to sympathize with both the killer and his victims.

Rounding out the package is a short-form cousin to last year's Sundance buzz doc The Overnighters. In White Earth, we again go to North Dakota to witness what oil booms and their attendant influx of workers do to small communities. We see one town's transformation through three sets of eyes, including those of a young girl who has lived here all her life — the town is "getting too many people and they're scary," she says. But the beautifully shot picture belongs to a newcomer, a boy whose thick accent and funny worldy-wise perspective enlivens his account of conditions we wish he weren't in. Shouldn't this kid be in school instead of amusing himself at home alone in between the six-to-ten phone calls he gets each day during Dad's coffee breaks? Something in his personality inspires us to predict he'll turn out okay.


Production company: Shorts HD

Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nelson


No rating, 80 minutes