I’ve only seen the nominated documentary shorts one time previous, when the subjects (in order) were: a video showing a drone strike on journalists in Baghdad, the shameful history of throwing acid in women’s faces in Pakistan, the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, and a barber in Birmingham who marched for Civil Rights (the fifth nominee wasn’t shown). The first three documentaries were so intense that I’ve shied away from watching any of them in recent years.
Good thing I didn’t this year, which is also the first year I’ve seen all the Oscar nominated shorts, and the first year I’ve written about any of them.
1.) A Concerto Is a Conversation (Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, USA, 13 mins, 2020)
Available on YouTube
Interspersed with photos and awkward reaction shots that are framed like Ozu but aren’t nearly as effective, this New York Times Documentary uses the premier of Kris Bowers’s Concerto for a Younger Self as a starting point for a movie about his grandfather before he passes away from cancer. Horace Bowers grew up in segregated Florida before hitchhiking (as a black man in the 1940s!) to places like Detroit and Denver. He ended up in L.A. with less than $30 in his pocket and got a job at the dry cleaners by pretending to be from an employment agency. At 20, he became the owner of his own dry cleaners (what became Bowers & Sons Cleaners), despite having to deal with a different kind of racism than what he experienced in the South. Like all of the entries, it’s poignant, but the weird reaction shots fall flat, unlike the concerto.
2.) Colette (Alice Doyard and Anthony Giacchino, USA, 25 mins, 2020)
Available on Amazon Prime for $3.99
This short begins with the following message:
WARNING: Viewers may find the content of this film distressing
Colette Frances has never visited the concentration camp where her brother, Jean-Pierre, was murdered (in fact, she vows to never visit Germany). At 90 years old, this former freedom fighter finally decides to go with Lucie Fouble, a young history student and docent at La Coupole Museum who is writing a book about Jean-Pierre.
The Oscars love stories about the Holocaust, but this nominee uncovers a lesser known story: the fate of French Resistance fighters deported to concentration camps. At Mittelbau-Dora, Colette says, ” If these hills could talk, I think we’d hear screams.” Amazingly, only 1% of the population fought back after Germany conquered the country — at least until the Allies arrived. A powerful film, and the one that made me cry the most out of the five nominees.
3.) Do Not Split (Anders Hammer, USA/Norway, 35 mins, 2020)
While “Colette” has a chance of winning the Oscar, “Do Not Split” is the one that should win. The story of the 2019 Hong Kong protests is covered mostly through cameras embedded with the protestors, as well as drone footage. Occasionally, protestors are interviewed, most prominently Joey Siu, who stepped down as student representative after China — In June 2020 — passed a draconian national security law to punish anyone promoting secession and subversion, among other things.
Detailing the protests from their beginnings (June 2019, with a controversial extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong’s citizens to be extradited to other countries, including China), the film follows the movement as it encounters counterprotestors who support China and the ramping up of police violence (even against residents and random teenagers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), leading to the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University and pro-democracy candidates winning 17 of 18 districts in the next elections. The movie ends around July 2020, when 370 protestors were arrested under the new national security law, even though COVID has ended new mass protests since January 2020.
Of all the documentaries, this one gave me the most immersive experience, greatly helped by its soundtrack, which highlighted and accentuated the mood, but never overpowered it. Engaging from start to finish, this is what great documentary filmmaking is all about.
4.) Hunger Ward (Skye Fitzgerald, USA, 40 mins, 2020)
Available on Paramount+
The most depressing of the documentaries, and considering one of the documentaries deals with concentration camps, that’s saying something. It’s also one of the best. Unlike “Do Not Split,” the cameras in this documentary immerse the viewer by staying stationary, witnessing the brutality of Yemen’s civil war through its most innocent victims.
It opens with this quote from The [sic] Watchmen by Alan Moore: “It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”
After overlapping news reports of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, we are confronted with its horrors. We meet Dr. Aida Hussein Alsadeeq, who “supervises the pediatric malnutrition ward at Sadaqa Hospital,” where over half of the cases of malnourished children end up. Later on, we’re introduced to Nurse Mekkia Mahdi, who works for the Aslam Clinic, “the largest of a network of rural malnutrition clinics in North Yemen” (both quotes are directly from the movie). We witness severely underweight children who may or may not survive, and those who don’t. At Sadaqa Hospital, we meet Omeima, who is 10 years old and 24 pounds. At Aslam Clinic, we meet Abeer, a 15-pound 6-year-old who rarely smiles. To make matters worse, many of the children have wheat allergies because wheat is the only food they receive from aid agencies.
As the film notes at the end, most of the destruction is due to air strikes from Saudi Arabia and its allies. Saudi Arabia also prevents food and medicine from getting into the country. And who is the biggest supplier of weapons and aid to Saudi Arabia? The United States. A shocking film that should make us feel ashamed enough to call up our politicians and demand a change (you can also go to hungerward.org to take action).
5.) A Love Song for Latasha (Sophia Nahli Allison, USA, 19 mins, 2019)
Available on Netflix
Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du at Empire Liquor over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice that she thought Latasha was stealing, despite the fact that the teenager died clutching the two dollars she was going to use to pay for the drink. Her death (and the subsequent non-sentencing of Du, which involved little more than community service and a fine) helped spark the 1992 L.A. riots.
This short pretends to be mostly shot on a VHS tape from the mid-80s and early 90s, except that the images are good quality digital with occasional fake tracking lines. I grew up in the 80s, and you need more than that to make modern digital look like decades-old analog. The story is mainly told through re-enactments — not so much of the events which occurred, but as scenes that could’ve taken place while she was alive. Voiceovers fleshing out her brief life are provided by her best friend Ty and cousin Shinese and help create a portrait of an intelligent, fiercely proud teenager who most likely would’ve become a successful lawyer and mother had she lived. All for a drink that cost $1.79, and hatred that costs us so much more.