Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Documentary: Short Subject

One of my favorite newfound traditions over the past few years has been making my way to the Detroit Film Theater located in the Detroit Institute of Art to watch the Oscar nominated short films. They only show the documentary shorts twice and fairly early in the season. This year, they showed on the 4th and 6th, more than three weeks before the awards are presented, so one has to be rather on top of their schedule to be sure to see them. I definitely missed out on the documentaries when I started doing this. Now, I make sure to get the schedule early and block time out in my calendar as they are one of the best parts of the Academy Awards.

Documentary (Short Subject)
  • Body Team 12
  • Chau, beyond the Lines
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
  • Last Day of Freedom

Body Team 12 follows Garmai Sumo and her body collection team during the Liberian Ebola outbreak.* The only woman on her team, Garmai is the first person into each retrieval. She talks emphatically about family, motherhood, empathy, and her role in saving her country. The film opens with a decadently smooth take, and the cinematography is exquisite throughout. Easily the shortest of the documentaries, my only real complaint with Body Team 12 is that it feels terribly abridged.

In danger of coming across as disjointed, Chau, beyond the lines starts in a mixed-purpose school/hospital/orphanage for Vietnamese children born with Agent-Orange-linked defects. From there, it finds its focus with Chau and documents his journeys into wider society. Too often, the able-bodied gaze turns people with disabilities into a perverse sort of inspiration story. At times, Chau, beyond the lines felt like it was dipping into this, and at others, it was keenly aware of this tendency, as it focused at length on third parties lingering too long with their own cameras. The film comes across as though it was originally intended to be a more political documentary detailing the effects of Agent Orange on the populace, but director Courtney Marsh stumbled upon the human interest story of Chau and refocused on that without enough footage to convincingly cast the whole film as truly being about him. Technically confusing, and philosophically uncomfortable, Chau the film isn't nearly as capable as Chau the person to overcome its misguided development.

Claude Lenzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is rather a "making of" Claude's epic, nine-and-a-half hour documentary on the holocaust. As someone who has never seen Shoah, this was interesting, but ultimately it falls flat as a documentary. While emotive and tough to watch at times, Spectres more than anything else feels like a very well produced DVD extra. I suspect that, more than the film's inherent quality, Spectres is nominated for its relation to Shoah.

Where Chau, beyond the lines felt like a film that perhaps tried to not be problematic but never quite got out from under its white, able-bodied, American director's gaze, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a Muslim story documented by a Muslim director. The tragedy of a failed "honor" killing, the life of the victim, and society's pressure on her to forgive her attackers thereby commuting their sentences are all themes used as excuses for cultural imperialism, notably among White Feminists. Here, though, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani woman, deftly explores a life-and-death story that fits into a much broader narrative of the varying interpretations of Islam on the cultural place of women in Pakistani society. Employing excellent editing and cinematography, Obaid-Chinoy delivers a heavy and valuable film.

Last Day of Freedom, animated from fresh and archival footage, features Bill Babbitt recounting his brother's death at the hands of the US justice system and the life that came before. Babbitt's story touches on negligent military recruiting practices, lacking veteran mental health resources, the political nature of the judicial system all while he recounts his personal decision to turn his brother in while weighing his family and his moral responsibility to justice. The editing is so seamless, I wonder if this was one long interview a la Story Corps. The animation employed is minimal and black and white in contrast to the morality within while the flashbacks are often murky and shadowy as it explores Babbitt's mentally infirm brother's tenuous grip on reality. Evocative and stirring, Last Day of Freedom lives and dies on the strength of Babbitt's voice which is nothing short of remarkable.

One of the reasons I so treasure the documentary shorts is the wide breadth of stories covered. That is exemplified here with a remarkable diversity of locations and people. This category comes down to A Girl in the River and Last Day of Freedom. They are both phenomenal documentaries that take on thorny, complex topics, but I'm leaning slightly for the latter. My guess is that the ability of the Academy to better relate to Last Day of Freedom will push it over the top.

Should win: Last Day of Freedom
Will win:  Last Day of Freedom

* A job I'd looked into before being discouraged by the lengthy quarantine upon returning

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