'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2019: Documentary, Program A': Film Review

Black Sheep-Publicity Still-H 2019
One of these two should win.

Two penetrating films take fresh looks at dying and the impact of racism.

The more affecting of two packages offering theatrical auds a chance to watch this year's Oscar-contending short documentaries, Program A asks viewers to feel okay about death and to suffer through a wrenching stage in a boy's path toward a (presumably) well-adjusted adulthood. Both films take precisely the form and length required to tell their stories; though their subjects are age-old, both shorts feel fresh.

In the 40-minute End Game, veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take us to two different San Francisco facilities helping patients and families confront terminal illness. (Presumably, the pair's experience with AIDS-related projects like 1989's Oscar-winner Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt pointed them toward this subject.) In both settings, the grief and fear we know we'll confront are leavened with plain-talking respect, empathy and love.

"I think it's healthy people who think about how they want to die, and sick people who think about how they want to live," posits Steven Pantilat, a physician at the University of California at San Francisco's Palliative Care program. He and his colleagues deal daily with the reality that all of us may change our minds when confronted with death — and that, say, while we may happily embrace the idea of giving our own organs to scientific research, we may not be able to accept that idea when deciding on behalf of a loved one. Those contradictions are most poignant in scenes with Mitra, a 45 year-old Iranian immigrant whose husband and mother hover constantly nearby; the two gently debate how they think she would prefer to live out her last days or weeks.

Across town at the Zen Hospice Project, we meet BJ Miller, a doctor whose youthful near-death accident cost him three limbs. Displaying a level of acceptance you'd expect given the place's name, Miller seems uncommonly equipped to help those in his care face suffering head-on. The sensitivity these and other professionals show is only half the picture, as Epstein and Friedman show many facets of their patients' experience: Whether they're contented, sad or fierce, the doc never finds anything less than dignity.

(One important factor End Game doesn't address — and probably couldn't in this short format — is how the costs associated with care affect patients' and families' decision-making.)

Covering tremendous ground in the story of a single man's youth, Ed Perkins' Black Sheep pairs a one-setup interview with well executed, sometimes surprising reenactments. Cornelius Walker was a ten year-old Londoner when his neighbor was stabbed on the way home from school, prompting his parents to move the family out to a less urban part of Essex. There, the boy of Nigerian descent found himself the only black kid around, subject to slurs that led quickly to violence. Intent on protecting his son, Cornelius' father gave up his London job and sought work close by. It "didn't really work out," Cornelius tells us, and the blend of sadness and understanding he displays when waving away the ensuing domestic abuse is one of several heartbreaks contained here. The wrenching story filling out the rest of Sheep's 27 minutes — covering not just bigotry but self-hatred, the perverse identification with one's tormentors, and the power violence has to transform its victims — is made bearable only by the smart, mature voice telling the tale. Though we're not directly told anything about Cornelius' adult life, his demeanor convinces us that this hellish period made him wiser instead of destroying him.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Ed Perkins, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman