2023 Oscar-Nominated Short Films – Documentary
2023, NR, 165 min. Directed by Various.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Feb. 17, 2023
Comprising sustainable and hearty food for thought, this year’s crop of short documentary nominees is a varied harvest of themes and styles, in keeping with the Academy’s classic model of delivering something for every palate. The perils of climate change, Islamophobia, the evolution of a young mind, a darkly prescient history lesson, and baby elephants are the grist for the cognitive mill of this prix fixe menu. Wine pairings may be added for an additional fee.
In “Haulout,” from Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, a marine biologist is living in a shack on the desolate coast of the Siberian Arctic. Subsisting on canned fish, bread, and cigarettes, Maxim Chakilev is waiting for walruses, around 100,000 of them. The lack of sea ice has turned this stretch of land into a stopping point for migration. The film’s visual style and droll tone make the carcass-laden aftermath of the beach (from stampedes and tramplings) all the more poignant, and the notable highlight of the collection.
Moving south to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Southern India, Kartiki Gonsalves’ and Guneet Monga’s “The Elephant Whisperers” follows a couple, Belli and Bomman, who work to raise orphaned baby elephants, an endeavor that has an almost nonexistent success rate. Except for Belli and Bomman, who have raised two of them, Raghu and Ammu. Prepare to fall hard for these li'l pachyderms, with lessons in healing, family, and spirituality. This is the heart-warmer course of the set.
Exiting the natural world, “Stranger at the Gate” tells the story of Richard “Mac” McKinney, a 25-year Marine veteran who planned to detonate a bomb at the local mosque in Muncie, Indiana. Grappling with long-term post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and the military conditioning of more than two decades of seeing every Muslim as a violent threat to him and his family, Mac, at his daughter’s urging, visits the mosque one day. What he finds is acceptance and love from the community, which sends him on a vision quest that ultimately leads to his conversion to Islam. Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones have crafted a compassionate example of empathy at work in the world, and an indictment of the institutions whose dehumanization efforts see no worth in it.
In “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison take us back to the early, halcyon days of publicized presidential shenanigans: Watergate. Did Martha Mitchell, the charismatic and outspoken wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell, know that Nixon and his cronies (her husband included) conspired to burglarize the Democratic National Committee in 1972? You better believe it. Was she the target of an endless smear campaign, on top of being drugged and assaulted, in her attempt to expose them? Correct again. This archival-footage-heavy doc lays out how it all went down.
For filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, the project of asking his daughter Ella the same set of questions on her birthday every year since she was 2 has paid off in a variety of ways. From the evolution of material desires to cherishing personal connection, the complexity of the father-daughter relationship waxing and waning, to just witnessing, in time-lapsed fashion, the development of a person to the age of 18, “How Do You Measure a Year?” is a fascinating, intimate portrait of transformation. What does Ella want to do when she grows up? “Put on makeup and eat gum” (age 3). “Use the time I have doing things that matter to me” (age 9). To be clear, both are completely viable options.