The documentary shorts are perhaps the least commercial of any of the Oscar categories, which also makes them one of the purest expressions of filmmaking you will ever witness. The love with which these films are crafted is something that knocks me over every time.
I got an advanced look at the shorts and have reviews below. My analysis of which one I predict will win follows at the end. A program of these shorts opens today, Feb. 9. To find a theater near you, visit https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/theatrical-release/.
“A Night at the Garden” (7 minutes)
Using only archival film footage, this documentary shows a Nazi-inflected rally that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1939. Any parallels to more recent political rhetoric and rallies are left for the viewer to draw.
“Black Sheep” (27 minutes)
In this doc out of the UK, a son of Nigerian immigrants tells the story of his childhood in an all-white town and how he denied his own identity in order to survive. He falls in with a gang of racist hooligans and speaks with candor about his troubled relationship with his father. The super candid, first-person interview style reminds me of one of my favorite podcasts, Everything is Stories. Other than the interview, the story is illustrated with well-crafted re-enactment scenes.
“End Game” (40 minutes)
This Netflix-sponsored longer short takes you inside the decisions terminally ill patients, their families and their doctors are making regarding end-of-life care. The access is pretty incredible — kudos to the families and care providers for opening up in incredibly vulnerable situations. You see many different choices played out to different degrees and get a profile of a handsome hospice doctor who is bringing his own near-death experience to his practice.
“Period. End of sentence.” (25 minutes)
Menstruation is a taboo subject in India. Even having read about this and some of the groups that are currently working to make positive changes, this documentary was an eye-opener. It shows the problem through giggling interviews from men and women. Then it follows a group of women who start a business making pads and selling them door-to-door. The editing is fleet and the score is super-catchy. Honestly, I would have been happy to watch a feature-length version of this documentary. I’m hoping the filmmakers are working on it! This seems like exactly the kind of upbeat girl-power movie that could really have momentum in the awards season.
“Lifeboat” (35 minutes)
This doc follows an international team working for a German nonprofit called Sea Rescue. They do as their name suggests, plucking distressed refugees from overcrowded boats off the coast of Libya. It has interviews with refugees and it also shows the darker side, with 1 in 18 migrants who attempt the crossing drowning. We see a team whose job it is to collect the dead bodies that wash up on shore.
You hate to fault any documentary on such a critical subject, but this doc is probably the weakest in the technical categories, with much of the sound and camera work kept raw. I’m not sure how much that will affect the Academy voters. They could well overlook it, given the inspiring captain of one of the boats and other story elements that make this film well worth watching.
My Best Documentary Short Film Oscar Predictions
This is a great group of short films. I don’t know if my favorite short film of the year wasn’t eligible, or what, but I guess I don’t begrudge the committee that had to whittle things down.
The standouts for me were “Period. End of sentence.” and “End Game”. I could see “Lifeboat” also being in the mix. “Black Sheep” and “A Night at the Garden” were also great, don’t get me wrong. However, the former trio have a broader scope that I’m guessing will appeal to voters. My personal choice would be for “Period. End of sentence.” But I don’t vote.
The big wildcard is the Netflix name. Is it a help or a hindrance for “End Game” to open with that big red N? Some Academy members are on record as not liking the changes Netflix has been bringing to the industry. Also, HBO has won this award several times and it is a TV network, so it would be hypocritical of the Academy to hold Netflix’s quasi-TV status against it.
In the end, I think the fact that “End Game” is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, two accomplished filmmakers who also happen to have directed a movie about the history of the Academy Awards a few years ago, will overcome any possible Netflix stigma. Not only is it an incredible movie, these are two guys who presumably have name recognition within the Academy.
There are a lot of filmmaking styles and techniques on display just in this small group of films, although the one style not seen is one where the documentarian takes center stage. These movies put their subjects at the center and they are all fascinating subjects.
This award will probably change the lives of the winners and possibly their subjects. The ABC producers could do a much better job of telling that story, but fortunately for you, you have a chance to see the shorts for yourself on a big screen and will have a rooting interest in a category that is too often overlooked!