2017 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentaries – Program A
2017, NR, 74 min. Directed by Various.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 10, 2017
Misery and suffering know no national borders, but refugees from those conditions know all too well their demarcations. That is the message that comes through clearly in these five contenders for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Two of the shorts – “4.1 Miles,” and “Watani: My Homeland” deal explicitly with the refugee crisis, while “The White Helmets” showcases the volunteer Syrian NGO that searches for and rescues civilians from urban airstrikes and danger zones. “Extremis,” on the other hand, situates its camera in an American hospital where patients, families, and doctors struggle to make difficult end-of-life decisions. Only one of the films, “Joe’s Violin,” has a conventionally uplifting narrative arc with its story about a man who donates his old violin to a young, needy student. These films all celebrate the human spirit and the will to survive, even if they’re not certain that these aspirations will be met with a welcoming embrace.
Each of the three films in Program A runs about 25 minutes and has already won several festival awards. Daphne Matziaraki’s “4.1 Miles” is the film in this section that offers an eye-level view of the European refugee crisis and affords the most visceral experience of the bunch. The film’s central figure is a coast guard captain on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is situated 4.1 miles from Turkey. It captures a day in the life of this captain and his 10-man crew, who are called out hourly to rescue hundreds of drowning refugees in the strait between the two countries. Between 2015 and 2016, 600,000 migrants have poured onto the island’s shores, where the civic infrastructure is ill-prepared to deal with such overwhelming numbers. Still, the film shows how the Greek citizens rise to the dire occasion, rescuing the suffering escapees from their homelands, many of whom are barely alive, and others already dead. The vast number of children arriving is dismaying, and Matziaraki’s camera views their panic and disorientation from inside the horde. As well, she captures the silent exasperation of the captain who returns hourly to the never-ending rescue mission, and still frets that someone has been left behind. Desperation has rarely been presented with as much immediacy as this document.
Also included in Program A are Dan Krauss’ “Extremis” and Kahane Cooperman’s “Joe’s Violin.” The end-of-life decisions that are the subject of “Extremis” take place in the intensive-care unit of a single public hospital. The film highlights the choices made by patients and their families regarding the insertion of assistive breathing tubes to keep a patient alive when all signs of progressive organ failure are evident. Doctors are shown debating a choice that must be made for an incompetent patient with no relatives, and patients and their loved ones are shown struggling with the stark decisions that must be made. It’s a reminder that there really is no such thing as a good death. “Joe’s Violin” is really the only heartwarming movie in the bunch, and since it concerns the actions of a Holocaust survivor, it may stand the strongest chance for an Oscar win (as Holocaust subject matter is proven Oscar catnip). The subject, Joe Feingold, responds to a call from WQXR, New York City’s classical radio station, for used musical instruments to be donated to public schoolchildren. The Holocaust survivor, who later immigrated to the U.S., donates the violin he’s owned since he traded a carton of cigarettes for it while living in a displaced persons camp after the war. He gets to meet the inspiring young girl who receives the instrument, and during the course of the story we learn about the unusual Bronx school for immigrant girls that she attends. In its way, it’s another story about two refugee lives.