2019 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts
“End Game” (40 min.)
The story: The staff of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project provides end-of-life care to a variety of patients.
In short: Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk), this emotionally rich work provides not only a glimpse at the people who’ve devoted their lives to making the final days of the terminally ill as peaceful as possible, but phenomenally intimate access to a few brave individuals willing to have their remaining time filmed. Thanks to compelling subjects and intelligent editing, the lengthy runtime goes by in what feels like half the actual amount and leaves compassionate viewers enriched as if they’d seen a feature-length doc.
“Black Sheep” (27 min.)
The story: The son of Nigerian immigrants recounts his struggles as a youth in racist Essex, England.
In short: Sitting on a chair in a dark room, interviewed pseudo-Errol Morris style, it seems like Cornelius Walker’s stories of his fraught preteen days are going somewhere dramatic. Did he murder someone and is being interviewed from prison? Did he heroically save the day? Surely the copious dramatic reenactments and the somber tone created by the past and present will have a meaningful payoff. Spoiler alert — they don’t. Roll credits and wonder what the hell Academy voters saw in this tease.
“Lifeboat” (35 min.)
The story: The German nonprofit Sea-Watch rescues refugees in overcrowded, rickety watercraft crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe.
In short: There’s no denying that this film presents important subject matter, but there’s a strong sense that it could have been handled in smoother fashion. The makings of an exceptional short — daring rescues, harrowing imagery, and devastating personal histories from survivors — are all present, but they tend to play out twice as long as necessary, diluting the overall impact.
“A Night at the Garden” (7 min.)
The story: On February 20, 1939, more than 20,000 Americans gather in Madison Square Garden for a pro-Nazi rally.
In short: For six minutes, well-edited archival footage of an event unknown to the majority of U.S. (and global) citizens plays out in increasingly eerie fashion, poetically drawing parallels between a volatile time and the present, and it appears that the latest work from Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams) has vaulted to the favorite in this category. Then the film suddenly ends, failing to reach any conclusion whatsoever, and one can’t help but wonder, “Is that it?”
“PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE.” (26 min.)
The story: Women in the rural Indian village of Hapur strive to make feminine hygiene supplies easily available and end misconceptions surrounding menstruation.
In short: A documentary dream come true in that a serious, little-known issue is depicted in entertaining, comprehensible fashion. The central women are all fascinating go-getters and their experiences making low-cost pads and attempting to sell them to baffled male storeowners and eager, equally baffled (in a good way) fellow females makes for a lovely, enriching watch. A little more professionalism on the technical end and it could have been the best of the bunch.
Program average: B. Not rated, but contains adult content and language and some disturbing images. Starts Feb. 15 at Grail Moviehouse