Oscar doc shorts highlight humans and problems
Sam Fentress | Monday, February 15, 2016
The average viewer of this year’s Oscars ceremony — now only two weeks away — might not recognize “Body Team 12” and “Last Day of Freedom” as Academy-nominated flicks, or even as movies at all. These two, dealing intimately with such grim subjects as Ebola and post-war trauma, push cinematic boundaries outward and forward, as do three other films nominated for Best Documentary Short.
All five films screened at Notre Dame’s Browning Cinema last Thursday, and I must admit that viewing them in succession required a different disposition than watching, say, “The Martian.” Take “Body Team 12,” for instance, a 13-minute short that zeroes in on Garmai Sumo, a Liberian Red Cross worker in the heat of the Ebola crisis. Brief but wrenching, the film depicts the team’s attempts to collect corpses destroyed by Ebola, often from the unwilling hands of family members who want to pay adequate respects to their lost loved ones. The short makes up for brevity with sheer relevance as the only of five shorts whose story demands and deserves to be told now. The choice of filmmakers David Darg and Bryn Mooser to adopt Sumo as the film’s center of gravity also helps; she epitomizes the uncanny grit required of workers in dire medical fields and exudes compassion for the job she’s called to do.
In fact, all five shorts put individuals at their center. It’s a good way to accomplish the two things that all good doc shorts should do well: tell a human story and illuminate a problem. “Chau, beyond the lines,” directed by Courtney Marsh, puts full trust in its human subject. 16-year-old Chau suffers from a disability caused by chemicals in Agent Orange, the herbicide U.S. military units sprayed over Vietnam throughout the ’60s. Marsh, dedicated to the project and to Chau, followed him over the course of eight years as he faced artistic rejection from a slew of authority figures and himself. Admittedly, I too found myself doubting that Chau — who can barely walk, much less hold a paintbrush — could find a viable career as a painter. But he does, and as we share in his triumph in the film’s final moments, we’re reminded of the value of commitment and of the passage of time, and of people like Marsh who are willing to watch and wait.
Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is the most recent great example of this long-term filmmaking, but even his work doesn’t match the Herculean effort of “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary that took 12 years to make and lasts nearly 10 hours. Lanzmann himself serves as the subject of another short, “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which depicts his efforts to create the 1985 film, which in his words was a “total war.” The new film focuses on Lanzmann’s career, but I found it the least affecting portrait among the nominees. The short does more service to “Shoah” as a film than it does to Lanzmann as a filmmaker, who seems less alive and interesting than his 30-year-old film. Perhaps that’s for the best. It’s an important film.
HBO is distributing “Lanzmann,” as well as “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” another nominee by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won an Oscar for her 2012 documentary “Saving Face.” Obaid-Chinoy’s 40-minute film follows an 18-year-old Pakistani girl whose uncle and father attempt to kill her after she elopes. It was no surprise to me that Obaid-Chinoy was a veteran of the category; “A Girl” is expertly produced and boasts the best production quality of the nominees, as well as a deeply arresting story. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the subject is not how common these “honor killings” are in Pakistan, but how casually the girl’s family treats the attempted murder — even after she manages to survive a gunshot.
Last and certainly not least is “Last Day of Freedom,” the most cinematically ambitious of the five shorts. The film animates an interview with Bill Babbitt, the brother of a diagnosed schizophrenic sentenced to death for killing an older woman. Directors Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones, in collaboration with a small animation team, drew over 30,000 individual frames to recreate the interview with Babbitt, which makes up the good majority of the film. Some are pencil, some are charcoal; some are colorful, but most are stark, as simple and raw as Babbitt’s account, which ends in tears — he turned his brother into the police with the promise that his brother wouldn’t face the death penalty.
I love “Last Day of Freedom.” It boasts beauty and importance equally, and at the same time, pulses at an excruciating pace. Talisman and Hibbert-Jones breathe palpable empathy into their animation, and Babbitt’s internal conflict feels as real as the societal problems it reflects, those of a country unable to compassionately deal with men and women who suffer from mental illness, even sometimes as a result of service to their country (Babbitt’s brother served extensively in Vietnam, the cause of his PTSD). Babbitt’s urgency in “Last Day” is the urgency that saturates the best of its genre, an urgency to deliver the message in the clearest, most sincerely affecting way possible. “Last Day” — like all the nominees — delivers with pressure and poise.