Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Documentary [Review by Parsi]
Viewing documentary shorts individually can be a task (links embedded). Access can be difficult and promotion essentially nonexistent. But, this year’s films are best viewed together because they illuminate our shared humanity, something that appears lost on many these days. As a warning, these films can at times be difficult to watch, gut wrenching may be an understatement. Three of the five also deal with elements of Syria and the refugee crisis, which at first glance may seem a bit redundant, but they each have a very different point of view that brings breadth and depth to the subject. As a collection, this year’s crop of documentary shorts are a must watch.
Joe’s Violin is perhaps the most traditional documentary in the group and by far the most uplifting. That is saying a great deal given that the story revolves around a holocaust survivor. Joe’s Violin is clumsy at first, with some unnecessary and somewhat old school pans of New York and a plodding build to the story. But, the film is rich in connecting two very different lives with a shared love of the violin. Joseph Feingold a Polish holocaust survivor who found refuge in the US after World War II and 12 year old Brianna Perez an immigrant from the Dominican Republic attending a Bronx all-girls school where every student is taught to play the violin. The story follows Joe’s donation of the violin which ends up with Brianna. We get a glimpse at each of their stories. Joe’s survival of a Siberian work camp, separated family, and death of mother and brother in extermination camps is told effectively and with compassion. The violin is his first purchase while awaiting the opportunity to travel to the US. Brianna’s story is less robust and this is an area that needed some improvement. But, the true magic in the film occurs in the way they share the violin. Brianna sees the life in the instrument’s history and prizes it, paralleling Joe’s experience as a young man. When they meet, the thread that connects them is clear and vibrant. The refrain that echoes is that our immigration legacy is our immigrant present.
Charles Dickens reminded us in A Christmas Carol that Christmas is “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Perhaps Extremis, although divided by the Atlantic and more than a hundred years, serves to send a similar message about our shared journey. The film observes life as it approaches its end in an emergency room. The film examines the difficult choice doctors and families must make when deciding if they will sustain a terminally ill life at its end stage. Bound by uncertainty, both doctors and families are forced to decide to keep someone alive or remove them from a respirator and feeding tube and perhaps let them die. The film examines the clash within faith and medicine and between them with a delicate hand. One particularly telling moment is a doctor recounting her decision to keep a patient alive at all costs early in her career, when a nurse busted in and implied she was torturing her patient. The dilemma of mortality is relentlessly faced in this powerful film.
The tile is derived from the 4.1 Miles that refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan must travel from Turkey to Lesbos, Greece to access the rest of Europe. The juxtaposition of Greeks and tourists sitting at beach side open air cafes and the refugees jammed into to small boats is particularly powerful. The serenity of the island and the huddled masses are a reminder of their desperation and our comfort. The film focuses on the Greek coast guard and their struggle to save as many refugees as possible from drowning in the Aegean Sea. The weight of their obligation rests heavy on their faces only matched by ardent determination to help. Attempts to save the lives of infants and the grim reality of the journey make for a moving film. Perhaps the most poignant moment arrives when a Greek man trying to help refugees shouts at the camera pleading with the world to see the plight of these people and to help because the burden should not fall entirely on them.
Watani: My Homeland depicts one family’s life in Aleppo, Syria. The father Abu Ali has joined the Free Syrian Army in order to help his country emerge from the Assad regime. The decline and destruction of the city is almost its own character in the film; the buildings and spirits crumbling in tandem. But, what is most remarkable is the family’s attempt to retain some normalcy. The parents drink coffee together every morning. The children play games and wear clothing adorned with Mickey Mouse and English. If not for the bombs, guns, death, and destruction; these children could be playing in your backyard. Also revealing is the family’s fears and perceptions of Germany when fleeing becomes an option. They worry about being considered terrorists and think the Germans only want them because their cities are elderly and dying. By focusing on one family and their journey the film makes the conflict and tragedy personal and penetrating.
Most people run from bombings, the White Helmets run toward them. The White Helmets are a group of Syrian volunteers dedicate to rescuing people from bombing cites across Syria. With only a white helmet to protect them they run into collapsed buildings and craters to try and save as many people as they can. We join them as the Russian government targets civilians in Aleppo. The task before them is difficult but the reason they do so is at the heart of the film. As one of the White Helmets explains that in every person he rescues he sees his own children. For many of the White Helmets every life is actually as precious as their own, each child means as much as their own. A two month old dubbed the Miracle Boy rescued under piles of rubble hours after a bombing is cherished by all the White Helmets. Revealing of the extent of their dedication is a trip to Turkey to obtain rescue training. Sitting at the cusp of freedom and in the comfort of hotel rooms, they don’t seek to run from the conflict but to return to it and save as many lives as possible. Compassion outweighs any personal danger. Cutting between interviews of the White Helmets and their rescue operations effectively ties these normal men to their extraordinary work.
Together these are a powerful set of films that should be a must see for everyone. Across race, religion, gender, sex, age, national origin, and even time they represent a shared humanity across profound struggles. Take the time to watch and understand these films; the short time it takes to view them is slight compared to the lasting value they provide.
Parsi Verdict: Must watch, gut wrenching and life affirming documentaries.