Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary

The long shadow and in-your-face reality of mortality shadows nearly all the entries in this year’s powerful, draining Oscar-nominated documentary short films program.

There are some years when the nonfiction shorts nominated for the Academy Awards can be realistically seen as a menu of the world’s problems: short dispatches of despair and terror, war and its consequences, from far-flung countries and ignored communities. This year’s program has some of that quality to it as well; there is, after all, something about the form that seems to necessitate the choice of uncomfortable topics. But more than most years, this time the problems at hand are more personal than geopolitical.

Both qualities are tightly woven together in Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (41 min; USA). It is set entirely within the walls of a Veterans Administration crisis center in upstate New York, where 250 workers work the phones for veterans at risk of committing suicide. The statistics the film lays out are sobering (there are 22 veteran suicides a day; the crisis center receives 22,000 calls a month), and the stories captured are heartbreaking. One after the other, the responders dial down the callers’ often PTSD nightmare- and drug-wracked desperation into manageable problems with solutions, while emergency-response workers coordinate the EMT and police units who often have to be rushed to a scene with seconds to spare. Kent, whose previous films like Wartorn: 1861–2010 also dealt with veterans’ issues, often chooses empathy over drama in what could have been a shamelessly manipulative film. “My job is to make sure that [a veteran] doesn’t become a statistic,” says one responder who is also a veteran. This film does the same.

A world apart from that film’s every-second-counts immediacy is Aneta Kopacz’s ruminative Joanna (45 min; Poland). Joanna is a mother diagnosed with cancer when her son Johnny is just five years old. She responds by starting a blog that captures as much of her thoughts and her day-to-day life as possible for that day when she will no longer be around him. “I want you to know what I am like,” she says in the film’s voiceover. Kopacz focuses here on nearly everything but the cancer itself; there are glances toward her chemotherapy. Instead, we see Joanna and Johnny running errands, playing games, arguing over whether to go to McDonald’s, and trying to come to grips with death by enjoying their lives as much as possible. Kopacz’s approach is much the same, shooting this short as more impressionistic dream than documentary, layered in a calmly meditative and nature-focused visual scheme whose each scene shimmers with the urgency of appreciating every second.

In Christian Jensen’s White Earth (20 min; USA), the day-to-day is much more grounded. In this small, windswept North Dakota town choking on the fraught prosperity of the oil boom, several children give voice to their dreams and fears for the future. “All my dad does is work and sleep… I don’t go to school,” says one pre-adolescent who spends his days hanging around a trailer park. One girl is happy to make friends with the new kids, but doesn’t spend too much time outside by herself anymore, what with all the “scary” new roughnecks hanging around. There’s a solid germ of an idea here about the boom as both economic gift and social affliction, but Jensen loses track of it in an unstructured film that needed to be either more or less.

Another film about the hidden costs of industry, Gabriel Serra Arguello’s magnificently chilly The Reaper (29 min; Mexico) is theoretically about Efrain, who has butchered hundreds of bulls a day in a slaughterhouse, six days a week, for 25 years. Efrain’s intimate narration plays stoically over stark footage of bulls being chased into the killing chute, the gears and pulleys that ferry the carcasses through the meat factory, high-pressure hoses washing away the gore, hides peeled off like paper. Shot with the abstract and shivery industrial horror of a David Lynch film, the film is almost as much a reflection on death as it is a documentary about a slaughterhouse. “They looked at me as if I were the animal,” says Efrain about a dream about the bulls “There is a reason for that sort of a dream.” Efrain is thoughtful and sometimes troubled by his nightmare-inducing job, but practical as well: “If I didn’t kill [the bulls], my kids would have nothing to eat.”

While there is something to appreciate about all of these films, the most unforgettable is Tomasz Sliwinski’s Our Curse (27 min; Poland), another stark Polish view of mortality. The director and his wife spend much of the film on a couch, sipping wine and staring blankly into space like survivors of some tragedy. Their baby Leo, who was born with a breathing disorder called Ondine’s Curse that will likely leave him on a respirator for the rest of his life, has just come home from the hospital. The apartment fills with the repetitive hissing of Leo’s respirator and his gasping for breath. Meanwhile, the hollow-eyed parents wonder if they have the strength for a lifetime of this. Śliwiński’s stark methodology is unblinking in the face of the struggles faced by parents of children with such potentially crippling conditions. But it also remembers the frail Leo, almost hidden inside his small arsenal of equipment, occasionally kicking his limbs and grinning at the simple joy of being a baby, respirator or no. It makes for a potent mix of grueling reality and glinting happiness.

Click here for cast and crew information.