Is there any way to send this year’s program of Oscar nominated documentary shorts to our sitting President, to teach him about compassion, current events and history repeating itself? This is the question that’s been haunting me since watching the nominees in this category. I had a difficult time getting to sleep after watching a few of them – and I’m not even the person in charge of decisions that could affect those spotlit in these brief glimpses into humanity.
Traditionally, some might view this as the “eat your vegetables” of Oscar categories. It’s also my favorite as it exposes me to things – both epic and insular – I otherwise wouldn’t have the privilege of seeing. This year’s category is more important than ever, each spotlighting global issues that will assuredly stoke the fires of activism. I wish there was a way we could sit President Trump and his cabinet down to show them the difference they could make, by enacting (or rather retracting) policies.
For those of us who do happen to wear our hearts on our sleeves, buckle in because there are a wealth of poignant, prescient stories told here – ones you absolutely must see.
THE WHITE HELMETS (dir. Orlando von Einsiedel): This is a well-crafted first-hand account of the volunteer crew of first responders in the Syrian war. Their reality is one of bombings, shellings and terrifying air strikes. It’s an in-your-face look at a global crisis we can no longer ignore. Here, we get to know humanitarians in the Aleppo rescue mission who risk their lives to save others. Through this film, we experience the dangers they face and occasional miracle they encounter. Von Einsiedel captures the dizzying chaos of the moment and the frustrations of the citizens. The pain and agony of the victims are palpable. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s also very hopeful. You’ll be inspired by their persistence.
WATANI: MY HOMELAND (dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen): There’s always another way to tell a story and this short shows it’s possible. Mettelsiefen’s eye-opening doc looks inside the daily life of war-torn Aleppo, Syria – this time through the eyes of one close-knit family. The most haunting part is when, during the middle of an interview, the seven-year-old daughter begins to bolt out of the room after hearing a missile launched. She even identifies what sound it was and feels the flood of relief, stating, “It didn’t explode.” The parents sense of guilt is a universally understood feeling. Even more startling are the incidents that transpire that allow them to immigrate to Germany, a country that welcomes refugees with open arms. Trump and crew need to have their notepads out as this gives a look into how the refugee crisis should be handled.
4.1 MILES (dir. Daphne Matziaraki): It’s funny (read: not actually funny) that there’s not only one short to examine the refugee crisis, but two. And I don’t want to sound glib when I say I’m sensing a problem. Matziaraki’s short inserts us into the rescue mission of hundreds of refugees who are attempting a perilous ocean journey to find sanctuary on the Greek island of Lesbos. We see this play out through the eyes of a Coast Guard captain and his humanitarian efforts to help those stuck at sea. It’s an onslaught of immigrants into this small seaside town with little to no infrastructure. Plopping viewers right into the mayhem hammers home the immediacy of its message.
JOE’S VIOLIN (dir. Kahane Cooperman): This is probably the most hopeful and uplifting entry in the category. Cooperman’s short is a sweet tale about the power of music and connection, showing how living history is passed on and its impact on the lives of others. The newly formed friendship between 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold, who owned the violin for 70 years, and Brianna Perez, to whom he bequeaths his beloved instrument, conjures tears.
EXTREMIS (dir. Dan Krauss): Cameras follow Highland Hospital’s medical staff in the ICU as they advise terminally ill patients in the end stages of their life. This is heartbreaking and hits close to home for those who’ve ever had to wrestle with these decisions for a loved one. My only gripe is that it’s too brief to get inside the psychological toll this takes on the medical advisers.
The 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films program is now playing in theaters in New York. It will be released nationally on February 10.