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

Courtesy of Netflix
Strange bedfellows, but a program worth seeing.
2/8/2019

Current events, taboos and the shadow of old horrors round out the five contenders for the Academy's short-doc award.

The second collection of short documentaries vying for Oscars doesn't make for the most coherent viewing experience — through no fault of the individual films, of course — but will play well with do-gooders ready to venture overseas.

The program's centerpiece, Skye Fitzgerald's 40-minute Lifeboat, covers very familiar ground. Documentary devotees have already spent a fair bit of time with boat crews who pluck refugees from the Mediterranean; last year's It Will Be Chaos, which went to HBO after its fest run, built a whole feature around the subject. Fitzgerald's focus is tighter: He sails with Sea-Watch, a team of volunteers bent on rescuing those attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe. We observe part of a mission that, over three days, saw the group rescuing 3,200 people — a more logistically complicated process than it might sound, and one whose precariousness Fitzgerald depicts well. He also lets several individuals describe the varied threats they are fleeing. A central figure in the film, who previously spent 22 years in anti-whaling campaigns, feels sure that anyone hearing these speakers one by one would know that allowing them into Europe is the only thing to do: "Your heart tells the truth when you listen to it," he says. But of course, that assumes one's heart is in the right place.

In Period. End of Sentence., Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi tells a story some may find hard to believe: In a district of India not far from New Delhi, many girls have such difficulty dealing with the onset of menstruation that they drop out of school. Shot and edited with a reality-TV vibe and accompanied by an aggressively upbeat score, the film finds locals trying to correct this injustice, working to get women affordable sanitary pads. Though the 26-minute film doesn't leave us with a firm understanding of what options already exist — we're told that many just use old, inadequate rags during their periods, and that the products sold in stores are prohibitively expensive — it does find a new solution to rally behind: A device, invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham, that lets small groups of women make low-cost pads they can then sell in bulk to others. Scenes in which whole classrooms full of girls can barely even acknowledge the existence of menstruation suggest the scope of the problem cheap pads would help address; interviews with individual women undaunted by local norms acknowledge that hope doesn't only reside in one aging male inventor.

The shortest contender in this year's race is Marshall Curry's unsettling A Night at the Garden. Gathering footage shot outside and within a Madison Square Garden event on February 20, 1939, the film seems set to document, say, a legendary boxing match. Instead, it's a gathering of twenty thousand American supporters of the Nazi party. A backdrop in which a giant image of George Washington is paired with a stylized swastika looks like something invented for an alternate-universe sci-fi film, and the German-accented speakers make odd leaders for the Pledge of Allegiance. Curry's first film, 2005's Street Fight, introduced many of us to just-announced Presidential candidate Cory Booker; this chilling short, whose racist speakers want the "government returned to the American people who founded it," indirectly comments on the hatemonger Booker seeks to unseat.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Rayka Zehtabchi, Skye Fitzgerald, Marshall Curry