Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Documentary

'Body Team 12' is the standout in this year's slate of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, but it'll still be a tough year to call.
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This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts represent an impressive slate. In an unusual twist, three of the five consist of subjects who speak directly to camera, or whose narrative voice shapes the film. Another is an interview in which the filmmaker is heard only infrequently, and the fifth is an investigative documentary. Overall, this year’s shorts are more journalistic than in past years, which makes it difficult to predict a winner.

In Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s Last Day of Freedom (U.S., 32 minutes), the filmmakers animated the candid testimony of Bill Babbitt, an African-American man haunted by the memory of his brother Manny. The short is crafted from over 30,000 images, mostly black-and-white and hand-drawn, based on photos and archival film. Manny Babbitt was executed in 1999 for the murder of a 78-year old California woman. He suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD after two tours spent in Khe Sanh. That Vietnam War battleground was the site of the “hill fights” of 1967 to 1968, among the most contested and sanguinary conflicts of the war. While the short is a visually stunning mix of portraiture, landscape and abstract drawings, in some ways Last Day of Freedom is like listening to the radio.

Babbitt’s voice spurs the imagination, with its unique timbre and intonation. His storytelling is at times wordy and circuitous, yet in the end it delineates the disturbing series of events that began with Manny’s boyhood injuries in a car accident. Babbitt says that his brother’s personality was altered by the incident, but it was his military service that appeared to completely unhinge Manny. Tinged with Babbitt’s own guilt, his tale includes the admission that he reported his brother to the police after discovering evidence of his crime. The filmmakers err in leaving vital information about Manny to an intertitle at the end of the documentary, but Babbitt’s testimony is nevertheless a scathing commentary on America’s treatment of its war veterans, many of them African-Americans like Manny Babbitt.

Courtney Marsh and producer Jerry Franck’s Chau, beyond the Lines (U.S.-Vietnam, 34 minutes) takes viewers to modern-day Vietnam and to the effects of napalm. United States forces used the herbicide during the Vietnam War to deforest about 12 percent of the country, but also as a weapon against Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Napalm sticks to human skin and burns it. More insidious is its release of dioxin into the air and water, and into the bloodstreams of pregnant women. Research studies in the U.S. have indicated that even the children of male veterans exposed to napalm are at a higher risk of spina bifida and other birth defects associated with dioxin. The subject of this short, a young Vietnamese man named Chau, was born with severe disfigurements as a result of his mother’s exposure to napalm.

While Marsh and Franck point a finger at the United States, they also portray the cruelty of Vietnamese nurses and aides who care for the children in the hospital where Chau lives. Like many of the shorts in this category in past years, Chau, beyond the Lines is inspirational; its eponymous subject harbors the dream of becoming an artist and a clothing designer. His voice provides the narration for the documentary, as he moves from his life at the facility, to a brief stay with his family, and then to his attempts to live on his own. While the short spends too much time at the facility, it chronicles Chau’s incredible journey with great tenderness and journalistic skill. Marsh’s project, eight years in the making, began at the hospital where she had once been a volunteer.

The director of A Girl in the River (Pakistan, 40 minutes), Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, is a former Oscar winner (shared with Daniel Junge) in this category for Saving Face (2012), about acid attacks on Pakistani women and girls. Her short continues her quest to bring attention to the plight of females in her native country. Obaid-Chinoy’s subject, Saba, is the 18-year-old survivor of an honor killing, a murder attempt by her father and his brother. After shooting her, the two men dumped her in a river. Saba’s odyssey began a few weeks before her wedding when her father told her that instead of her fiancé, she would marry her uncle’s brother-in-law. Saba called her fiancé’s family and they arranged for the couple to be married, but these actions “dishonored” her father.

Apparently, in Pakistan “honor” is equated with female obedience. In this compelling documentary, Obaid-Chinoy explains how and why these murders continue, and the reasons men are not prosecuted for them. If she appears to deflect blame away from conservative Islamic practice, in the end Pakistan’s theocratic and patriarchal structure comes under scrutiny. That may be an important consideration for a filmmaker who draws so much inspiration from her country. Her feature-length documentary, the delightful Song of Lahore (2015), which premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, is about the effect of Islamization on Pakistan’s musical roots, and on one group of talented musicians.

Adam Benzine’s Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (Canada-U.S.-UK, 40 minutes) is an interview with the director of the landmark documentary Shoah (1985), nearly ten hours in length, which consumed a decade of the writer-director’s life. It consists of interviews with Jewish survivors, Nazi officers and others who were survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom worked in the death camps or who survived the Warsaw Ghetto. While some of Lanzmann’s memories have been widely reported, it has been 30 years since the release of Shoah, and the filmmaker is 90 years old. Benzine’s limited use of clips, and his lack of an on-camera presence, distinguish the documentary by giving greater voice to his subject. At one point, Lanzmann describes a break in the five-year post-production period, when he took a few days off at the beach. He nearly drowned, and for a moment welcomed the thought of dying. Another chilling moment comes when Lanzmann says he could not find “a way around the anguish” he felt from having to watch the footage again and again. He concludes that “the film made me.”

David Darg and Bryn Mooser’s Body Team 12 (Liberia, 13 minutes) is set at the height of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and is named for one among many teams of workers charged with the collection and disposal of victims’ bodies. At first, viewers will be distracted by the fish-eye effect of the camera lens, but as soon as the charismatic narrator appears, it is impossible not to be drawn into the story. Undoubtedly the heart of Body Team 12, Garmai Sumo, the team’s nurse and its only female member, becomes the audience’s guide. Her gender and the fact that she is a mother, Sumo says, makes her unafraid of blood or of dead bodies; she is there for the difficult moments when the men’s courage fails them.

Sumo describes her team’s duties in pleasingly accented English, and while there is no escape from the gruesome details, they are balanced by the nurse’s optimism, her love of country and her belief in God. She says that belief is necessary, otherwise there would be no answer to the question of why we are here. Body Team 12 stands out for celebrating ordinary Liberians who volunteered during the epidemic as a service to their country. The documentary is in the great tradition of oral history, of overturning the usual point of view of the more affluent class.

Although Last Day of Freedom is a standout for its visual style, and The Girl in the River for explaining the misogynistic aspects of a conservative Muslim culture, it is Body Team 12 that clutches at the heart. Not only is Sumo a redemptive presence in an apocalyptic moment in her country’s history, but she represents the best in all of us. For that reason, Darg and Mooser might just nab the Oscar.