2016 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts: "Body Team 12", "A Girl In The River", "Last Day Of Freedom", and Slot B)
Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts - Slot A - Reviews
Body Team 12 (13 minutes, dir. David Darg)
If there was any tremendous news story last year, it was that of the Ebola outbreak. 2015 was considered 365 days of raucous turbulence. From an uptick in nationwide violent crimes to environmental disasters and financial rollercoasters, it was frequently eventful and there certainly wasn't a dirth of useable material for reporters and bloggers the world over. Ebola definitely took center stage and, rightfully so, after a few hundred cases skyrocketed into the tens of thousands seemingly over night. And, of course, documentary filmmakers took great care in shining a light on the horror of this unprecedented outbreak.
So, here comes along "Body Team 12", a POV account of the widespread decimation of Liberia at the climax of the outbreak as seen through the eyes of a few determined, solitary disease control specialists. From the film's inception, the camera dollies around the barren wasteland as workers toil during arduous 16 hours days bagging and incinerating the bodies of their fallen townspeople who succumbed. The film switches from the thankless jobs of the workers and the families who were affected, many of them in disbelief and thinking that it was the ire of the gods who brought this upon them. The film, written and directed by David Darg is decidedly non-partisan in its approach which makes it incredibly refreshing and not tirelessly didactic. It presents the harsh environment and the tug of war between community and duty with respectful, if disheartening flourishes.
Of the three in Slot A, I did find "Body Team 12" to be the weakest in terms of narrative dimension. For one, we don't really spend a great deal of time with the families of the diseased or the woman it profiles, and, frankly, at only 12 minutes, I almost wish it were longer. Something like this, which received incredible coverage from news media, ought to have been given a more thorough treatment and not just a gloss over full of generalities. Plus, the film became rather repetitious in driving home the point that many of the afflicted members of each family were resistant and reluctant to the workers to carry away their beloved dead. As is tradition in many third-world nations, honoring the dead is of imperative importance. While certainly sobering, the approach was rough shod and barely scratched the surface as to the magnitude of this epidemic.
A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness (40 minutes, dir. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy)
Perhaps taking the cake for most excruciating to watch, "A Girl In The Water" depicts the sobering account of a nineteen-year-old Pakistani girl who finds herself the casualty of attempted murder by her father and uncle. Sporting a deep laceration from the bullet that grazed her left cheek as she attempted to dodge it, the account was both equal parts disturbing and unsettling. For those unfamiliar with the concept of an honor killing, there isn't much to it other than the belief that if a woman, who, in Middle Eastern society is barely considered a second class citizen, decides to elope with a spouse that is beneath her in class or in status ranking, that she be deemed as having committed high treason. To the majority of the more civilized sections of the Western world, this may be gobsmackingly astonishing but, unfortunately, it is routine. Even more frightening is the sheer amount of masculine power being wielded that almost always results in an acquittal for the sake of keeping the societal peace and thereby stripping away any chance at righteous justice.
The documentary is frequently harrowing and presents the full gamut of interviews ranging from the detectives assigned to her case who prove to be her only advocates as well as the "counsel of elders" who are called upon to make these difficult decisions as part of a consensus. Pitting integrity against societal duty, the girl is depicted as being flummoxed and agitated and in no way in her heart will she ever forgive them. My jaw frequently hit the floor during one particular scene that indicated that this counsel exchanged her lawyer without her consent in order to put added pressure on her to reach a compromise. Ultimately, it was a tale of faith and the fact that her uncle and brother swore on the Quran that they wouldn't harm her allowed for her to be spared death or significant ridicule. Her mother - an eyewitness to what occurred - is the only person that the girl is on speaking terms with because she wasn't an accomplice on any level.
It was hard for me not to draw the allusion between this girl's story and that of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, 18 and also from Pakistan whose near identical brush with death from a Taliban gunman at point blank range for crusading for female education. After the tumult they faced, both could have easily taken the option to lay down their arms and relinquish their beliefs but instead forged forward undeterred.
As the credits rolled, I immediately thought to myself that no matter what country one may find themselves in, corruption and intolerance will somehow persevere. Drawing parallels to our present political atmosphere filled with anti-Islamic sentiment, the filmmaker behind this documentary made expressly sure that all bases were covered and points finessed. The girl's uncle and brother demonstrate unrepentant irrationality toward her in stating that their attempt was justified despite her lawyer and the courts deeming the heinous act otherwise. So, what does she decide to do? Well, flee of course. Aiming to seek asylum from her vengeful relatives, she goes to live with her fiancee's family where her life suddenly becomes more idyllic. In portraying her as a woman who stands up for her basic civil liberties, we are immediately given a subject to root for and the fact that she doesn't cave despite insurmountable pressure is a testament to her strength and to the merit of the filmmakers.
Last Day Of Freedom (32 minutes, dir. Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman)
If ever there was a film to come along that underscores how undeniably rampant corruption and bureaucracy is in the United States, Dee Hibbert-Jones's "Last Day Of Freedom" comes irrefutably close. While coverage of the Vietnam War and of symptomatic soldiers returning home who are afflicted with PTSD is well trod territory, this picture takes a very original account of one stricken soldier, afflicted by paranoid schizophrenia, to form the basis of his struggle and unlawful incarceration and Death Row sentencing that breathes renewed life into stories of this ilk.
What immediately sets this film apart is the technical scope. Composed entirely of a rotoscope-like animation (think of the original "Snow White" film) that is very reminiscent of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" and his star-studded Philip K. Dick adaptation "A Scanner Darkly", the bombardment of visual imagery is a perfect companion to the hearty, on-camera interview given by the soldier's eldest brother Bill. When he weeps and waxes poetic about seeing his brother for the first time after two tours in Cambodia, we, the audience, are right there with him as animated battle scene plays out in haunting fashion. Similarly, the interior of a psychiatric ward is also given a stark visual presentation that punctuates the interview and allows us unrestricted access.
Instead of lobbing facts at us like many historically-based documentaries tend to do, the through-line here is completely personal and consistent in tone and delivery. The film's documentarian doesn't take his audience for fools and understands that most have at least a conversational understanding of the atrocities of the war. This picture's sole purpose appears to want to deconstruct the popular notions of the role that immense power can have on who receives vindication and who is punished. It succeeds by leaps and bounds never pulling its punches or sugar coating strife.
Another eye-opening aspect of the thirty minute documentary is its balanced perspective on the subject its profiling. No attempts to vilify or obscure his portrait are made and the result is as invigorating and direct as humanly possible. We are entreated to both empathize and sympathize with our embittered, mentally-scarred centerpiece as he goes from a man full of promise and well-meaning heart to an ousted candle that becomes derailed by drugs, homelessness and cruel treatment. It was the 1980s, after all,and mental illness was still seen as largely mythical.
Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts - Slot B - Reviews
Chau, Beyond The Lines (28 minutes, dir. Courtney Marsh)
While Slot A's films were unflinching and painful to watch, Slot B's slate were well-represented by impacting films that serviced a larger, more uplifting canvas. Chau, the title character for this documentary is seventeen years old when we meet him. No ordinary teenager, his uniqueness resides in the fact that he is one of many victims of the Agent Orange pesticide that was used by American forces during our extermination of the Vietnamese in the jungles of Malaya. His mother, as it turns out, unknowingly ingested polluted water during her late-term pregnancy that resulted in her son's debilitating physical defects. She was one of the 4 million originally infected by dioxin, the active ingredient in the herbicide which was found in her breast milk. Chau, now resigned to life in a special needs shelter, clings to the notion of a better, more enlivened existence for himself as his determination and will to survive catapult him in the direction of an unpredictable and meteoric rise in the face of adversity.
So, just what are Chau's greatest ambitions? His arc of the film is spent on his steadfast aim to become a renowned visual artist and fashion designer despite the physical limitations that have hampered him in his day-to-day life. Oddly, his fiercest opponents are the very nurses that tend to him as they knock his pursuits as nothing more but childish fantasies. Having been deserted by his mother who is presumed dead or estranged, Chau's lazor-sharp focus and intent on reversing his ill-fated fortune is presented as an atypical David & Goliath story. We, the audience, know the stakes but seeing Chau hit his stride and a solid growth spurt over the course of the film's four-year duration is nothing less than inspiring.
The initial scenes depicted are more than a little heartbreaking: sweeping camera movements shot guerrilla-style that draw attention to the squalid living conditions that the kids' are forced to dwell within. We realize that nothing could fully prepare Chau for his crusade to dismantle the preconceived notions of his superiors and peers. His provocative determination and unexpected thick skin makes his struggle all the more empowering and should convince viewers to look past the difficult themes and frequently disquieting material presented throughout. An excellent watch if you feel even momentarily downtrodden as this film will surely lift your spirits and hope for the future.
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (40 minutes, dir. Adam Benzine)
Few films about the Holocaust really illuminate the harsh brutality of what can be considered one of the most treacherous periods of our global history. Narrative pieces such as Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List", "Sophie's Choice" and "The Reader", as well as documentaries like "Judgement at Nuremberg" have successfully examined humankind's predilection for brutal acts based around religious and cultural insensitivity. Claude Lanzmann, the famous French documentarian who became renowned for his near 10-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah", is the subject of this piece that focuses on just what kind of legacy his imprint left behind.
Lanzmann, still alive and relatively spry at age 90, speaks as voraciously now in his current interviews than he did during the segments of archival footage during the production. What becomes the most intriguing expository portion of his interview is that he conceived his film to traverse four unique topics that he felt would offer the most raw and thought provoking responses. These lanes have seldom been covered before and if they were weren't given the impeccably thorough treatment Lanzmann has offered. They include exploring the technique of mobile gas vans used for more effective exterminations, the death camps of Auscvitz and Treblinka and insider stories with testimonials from survivors, perpetrators and witnesses. Essentially a documentary about the conception of a documentary, "Spectres of the Shoah" acts as a companion piece to the actual Lanzmann produced film that successfully provides enough pre-production and historical context to bring the intended audience a captivating slice of an artisan at the height of his powers.
It must be noted that his film received enormous, disparaging criticism ever since it was theatrically released in October 1985 with pundits seeing it as an exercise in excess and for an audience to sit through it would be considered self-harm. Still, as punishingly long as his film is, its impact became everlasting and widespread.