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(Yeah, we know. Oscar season shouldn’t matter to us at Hammer to Nail. But know what matters less to most Oscar aficionados? Short films. Know what matters even less than short films? Documentary short films! With that we bring you this excellent look at the slate of Oscar nominated short docs and who knows, maybe this will help you win that Oscar office pool!)

Hurray for the 2016 Oscar-nominated short documentaries! They are quite a fine bunch, though mostly bleak; or, at the very least, harrowing. They all feel as if they deserve to be there, although not knowing the wide range of possible nominees, I cannot say if better films were not left out. Now is the time to judge their quality for yourself, however, ahead of the February 28 Academy Awards, as these five films are currently playing in theaters, possibly near you, along with the live-action and animated shorts, as well. Check them out. Here are my capsule reviews of each of them, in the order in which they play.*

Body Team 12 (David Darg, 2015, 13min.)

David Darg (Mitimetallica) gives us a brief, but engrossing, look at a body-recovery and clean-up crew in Liberia in the days of the recent Ebola outbreak. He and his crew follow Garmai, the only female member of the team, as she leads her colleagues into disease-ridden alleys and houses, often to be confronted by grieving, fearful and angry members of the deceased’s family. Given the extremely contagious nature of Ebola, it is truly frightening to see how close (granted, wearing protective gear) Garmai must get to the bodies to take blood samples, to say nothing of the risks incurred by Darg and his own film crew. A work of brave and unflinching journalism, Body Team 12 will focus your gaze squarely on the action even when you wish to look away.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, 2015, 40min.)

We really need to find a better phrase than “honor killing” to describe what happens when a young woman’s family members decide that she has “dishonored” the family, and therefore deserves to die. Such actions constitute a crime, pure and simple, and should be labeled as such. Still, as director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Song of Lahore) makes abundantly clear in A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, it’s not that simple. Culture and practice interfere with official laws in many traditional communities.

Here, we meet Saba, a 19-year-old Pakistani woman whose unforgivable sin – as far as her father and uncle are concerned – is to marry the man she loves, rather than the man they have chosen for her. That she survives the attempted murder is a miracle, but then, as the film details, she has to confront the community’s desire for her to forgive her relatives so they can go free. It’s a tough story, but thanks to Ms. Obaid-Chinoy, we understand the competing influences – for justice and for peace – at war within poor Saba. A film for all to see who care about women, their place in the world, and how they are always front and center in the ongoing clash between tradition and modernity.

Last Day of Freedom (Dee Hibbert-Jones/Nomi Talisman, 2015, 32min.)

This is the most stylistically interesting of the nominated documentaries. First-time filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman take one long talking-head interview with Bill Babbitt (brother of Manny Babbit, who was executed in 1999 by the State of California) as he explores his feelings of guilt and sorrow over turning his brother in to the police, and apply a simple black-and-white animation over all the footage, including cutaways, inserts and b-roll. This technique allows them to explore how memory and time interact and intersect, since we can move seamlessly from one moment to the other and see how they blend.

Like the wonderful Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, from 2008 – also an animated documentary – Last Day of Freedom breaks innovative ground in the ever-evolving – and increasingly hybrid – genre of documentary filmmaking, all the while tackling important issues of crime, race, war, PTSD, and society’s obligations to its veterans. Given that we only ever hear Bill’s side of the story, the film is more testimonial than reportage, but this does not detract from the force of its emotional punch. Though his tears may be animated, Bill’s raw pain is real.

Chau, Beyond the Lines (Courtney Marsh, 2014, 34min.)

This film made me very angry; not at the filmmaker, nor at its subject, but at the country I call home (which, to be fair, is no different than any other imperial nation). As has been well-documented, US forces dropped many millions of gallons of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The toxins still remain, in places, in the soil and the water, and in Chau, Beyond the Lines, we learn that an estimated 2.1-4.8 million children have birth defects associated with Agent Orange. It really begs the question of what exactly we Americans were doing in Vietnam (and I am the child of a veteran of that war), and why we felt the need to do something so destructive to innocents.

Despite this grim beginning, where we see children with an incredible variety of deformities, Chau, Beyond the Lines is the most hopeful of the series. Chau, himself, is a teenager when we first meet him, living in a special institution for children like him, and dreaming of becoming an artist. Without divulging any plot spoilers, let’s just say that Chau’s story, capably rendered by director Courtney Marsh (Zari), ends up being as happy as we could hope it might be. Though equipped with weak arms and legs, Chau learns how to paint with his mouth, and it is a joy to watch him at work. He is also blessed with an incredibly strong will, which propels him forward even when his circumstances are difficult. It’s a very moving film, well told.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (Adam Benzine, 40min.)

Finally, we meet Claude Lanzmann, whose monumental 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah – completed in 1985 after a 12-year production period – remains a work of enormous commitment and power. In Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, first-time director Adam Benzine explores the making of that film, with the lens squarely on Lanzmann, himself, still very much alive (though born in 1925, so no youngster, either). Like Last Day of Freedom, we only really hear one man’s version of events – Lanzmann’s – though a few talking heads in the very beginning offer some initial outsider perspective.

We follow Lanzmann’s recollections of what happened as he tracked down survivors – both Jewish and Nazi – to collect as broad an array of information as possible. While I would have loved to have had more interviewees in this film, just to confirm the sometimes incredible events that Lanzmann recounts, he, himself, is such a charismatic presence that he easily holds our attention. And since filmmaker Marcel Ophüls (The Sorrow and the Pity,) another lengthy exposé of Nazi crimes) – one of those interviewees – describes Lanzmann, in the opening, as a megalomaniacal genius, perhaps its fitting that Lanzmann have the screen mostly to himself in this fascinating look at the process of research and creation, and the toll it takes on the artist.

*Some theaters play them as an A and B program, 87 and 76 minutes, respectively, while others play them as one long program of 163 minutes.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)


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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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