2019 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

A good little crop of films this year. None of them are truly outstanding, but all are intriguing, even if one is a mere seven minutes long, another is a retread (granted, brutally honest) of several previous nominees, and a third uses re-enactments throughout its thirty minutes. But, end to end, illuminating, interesting, and well made.

Let’s get to it.

“Black Sheep” (UK)
Directed by Ed Perkins

Available via AmazonPrime

sheepposterMy favorite of the bunch, “Black Sheep” tells a tale of institutionalized racism in a very personal, and universal way. Taking place in Essex, UK, this is a story of fitting in, seeking love, and teen survival. Via a single edited interview and re-enactments of his trials, the story feels more personal than one would expect from a story this oft told. Ed Perkins film is easily the most individual of the five, and, as a result, feels way more intimate. As a result it will probably last longer in my memory than any of the others.

HOWEVER, it does have a lot of re-enactments to illuminate the experiences and emotions our young man suffers through. There’s also a bit of a cheap film trick to connect the real story to the fictional representations that detracts a bit from the film.

But that bit of condemnation aside, this is a terrific, terrifying and dreadfully sad reminder of what it means to belong and very much NOT belong.

Trailer here

“End Game” (USA)
Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Available via Netflix

endgameposterAnother doozy, emotionally, “End Game” examines four cases of end-of-life scenarios, whether they be hospice, home palliative, continued  treatment or “Zen Hospice”. Voyeuristic, yet respectful, the film, I believe, hopes to lessen the fear and trepidation of such conversations and decision-making processes. In this manner, it is heartfelt, brutally honest and very, very difficult to watch. And yet somehow, it was subtly reassuring – comfortable, even.

My only issue with it is that it seems to make a judgement as to which is the “right” way…or, if not the right way, definitively the “wrong” way to go about it. Or maybe that’s just my own prejudice poking its head in to the mix, but it felt a little too instructive.

Regardless, it’s a very worthwhile watch…unless you’ve recently lost someone to a long illness, in which case it might be a tad triggering to re-live those incredibly difficult conversations.

Trailer here

“Lifeboat” (USA)
Directed by Skye Fitzgerald

Full film currently available here via New Yorker

lifeboatposterFollowing almost exactly in the footsteps of the 2016’s nominated short, “4.1 Miles,” and nominated feature “Fire At Sea”, Skye Fitzgerald’s “Lifeboat” examines the human cost of those feeling Africa to Greece via the Aegean Sea. Once again focusing on those whose chosen purpose is to save as many of them from the perils of overcrowded (and unsafe) boats, excessive heat, lack of drinking water, no sanitation and every other imaginable horror perpetrated by the traders who make their living off the backs of  desperate hope, this film illustrates the process of an organization’s efforts to save these people. In combination with those other films, you’ll have a pretty complete view of the actuality of it all.

But, alas, “Lifeboat” doesn’t  come close to having the emotional weight of “4.1 Miles” (in my view, the ultimate record of this ongoing atrocity). This film a bit all over the place in its focus. There are interviews with the ship captains, the victims, and the volunteers who go and get them. It certainly packs an emotional punch, but the most telling and beautifully filmed moments take place in the opening a closing bookends. Worst of all, Fitzgerald has applied the most intrusive and overwrought score imaginable. We don’t need dramatic and mournful music to feel mournful and dramatic. The pictures do all the work by themselves. This is abject horror, not suspense. Leave it be.

I’m not suggesting you don’t watch it. Everyone should be required to watch all three of these films to get a better idea of what is going on “over there”. But this film will not be the one I recommend for those interested in the subject.

Trailer here

“A Night At the Garden” (USA)
Directed by Marshall Curry

Available on YouTube via link below

gardenposterVery interesting. Very frightening. Very artfully produced. Very very very short.

“A Night at the Garden” is a seven-minute assemblage of archived video showing a Nazi gathering at New York’s Madison Square Garden a few years before the United States’ entree in to World War II. Watch it. It looks a lot like a Trump rally, which is the inevitable comparison.

But here’s the problem. It’s a feeling. It’s a glimpse into something frightening, but at its current length, it’s just doesn’t leave a lasting impression. IT certainly has drama, and Curry has attempted to give it a beginning, middle and end in a subtle narrative style, but it’s simply not a fully formed film. As it stands it feels like a sizzler to raise money to produce the actual film. I simply don’t know how it was nominated other than the obvious political comparisons to our current environment.

You can watch the entire film here

“Period. End of Sentence.” (USA)
Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi

Available via Netflix


The film I believe will win the Oscar is a lovely and poignant look at the effects of an uber-patriarchal culture and how it affects young women in the most basic ways. It describes for us both how taboo it is to discuss or mention the menstrual cycle, and how few people even know what it is or what its purpose is.

Having established the inequity caused by this fear and lack of knowledge, it then becomes a different film…a film about action, self-esteem, and cultural change. And, somehow, they both work together extremely well. Zehtabchi has done something quite unique. He has taken a 24-minute documentary, and given us a visceral description of the personal costs of an issue, one small, yet effective way to combat the issue, and shown the emotional benefits of utilizing those tools on an individual level. It’s a neat balancing act and a very well-made film. I was sorry when it ended. I would have happily watched a feature-length version.

As for the Oscar, it doesn’t hurt that it was produced as a project by a Los Angeles-area high school.

(the trailer basically takes away any of the discovery of the film, so watch at your own risk)

Trailer here


So how would I vote?

  1. Black Sheep
  2. Period. End of Sentence.
  3. Endgame
  4. Night At the Garden
  5. Lifeboat

Written on 2/20/2019

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