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Death, rescue, racism and menstrual pads: A rundown of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts

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‘Black Sheep’ — film still

Plenty of politics play into the Oscar nomination process (often leading to some dubious selections in the Best Picture, Director and acting categories), but there’s one aspect of the Academy Awards circus that consistently feels pure and even altruistic: the spotlighting of short films.

FilmScene is screening the Oscar-nominated short films in the animation, live action and documentary categories again this season, prior to the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 24.

Here, I’ve compiled overviews and thoughts on the five nominees for Best Documentary – Short Subject, highlighting important, even essential, stories from the Mediterranean Sea to the San Francisco Bay, rural India to suburban England.

Most all of these shorts can be found and streamed legally online — links are provided throughout — but if you have the chance to experience them together, on the big screen, grab it. Focusing on each story one after the other, and absorbing them as part of a whole, makes each more powerful. Together, they encapsulate 2018 better than any full-length film released last year.

The shorts are listed below in the order in which they’re screened.

Black Sheep

Length: 26 mins

“I can’t control how people react to my story. I can only try and make them understand my perspective.”

Probably the most artistically daring of the nominees, Black Sheep recounts a tumultuous period in a young man’s life by interspersing a single tight, straight-on interview with cinematic reenactments.

In 2000, Cornelius Walker was living with his immigrant parents in London when another young boy of Nigerian descent was murdered, not far from their home. Fearing for their son’s safety in the city, his parents decide to relocate to Essex. But Walker doesn’t spend 24 hours in his new neighborhood before racist slurs and threats of violence from the locals leave him feeling more unsafe and isolated than ever.

After getting beat up by a gang of white classmates, Walker wants nothing more than to blend in with the rest of the town. He decides to don some preppy clothes, bleach his skin and wear blue contact lenses — creating one of the more haunting images I’ve seen in a theater in the past year, and a disturbing manifestation of the concept of assimilation.

The more of his own identity he sacrifices, the more acceptance Walker receives from his new “friends.” Black Sheep offers no satisfying conclusions, no solutions to the aggressive racism that pervades small towns in the U.K. and beyond. But it does present a story worth the telling, a beautiful and disquieting window into one black teen’s experience.

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Black Sheep can be viewed in its entirety on the Guardian’s YouTube channel.

End Game

Length: 40 mins

Can a short film capture the infinite mystery, complexity and tragedy of death? End Game makes a valiant effort, and takes a full 40 minutes — the maximum runtime to qualify for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short — to explore its hefty subject matter.

The Netflix film focuses on palliative care providers and patients in the San Francisco Bay area. As individuals and their families discuss how they want to spend the last days, weeks and months of their lives — at home, in hospice care or with another round of treatment, a last grasp at a miracle — one doctor observes a central paradox of end-of-life decision-making: “It’s healthy people who think about how they want to die, and sick people who think about how they want to live.”

There are two “main” stories featured: that of Dr. B.J. Miller, the executive director of the Zen Hospice Center; and that of an Iranian-American family whose loved one, Mitra, is dying of cancer at UCSF Medical Center.

Miller, who lost both legs below the knee and his left arm in an accident at 19 years old, runs a community-oriented hospice facility where patients are made as comfortable as possible, but where their mortality, and the choices and consequences surrounding it, are tackled head-on.

“Suffering is the space between who you want to be and who you are,” Miller says, encouraging a group of patients not to fight or ignore death, but develop some sort of relationship with it.

Meanwhile, Mitra’s family (primarily, her mother and husband) struggle to grasp just how soon they will lose her. Though we meet them in the darkest period of their lives, the filmmakers still catch moments of laughter, happy reminiscence and deep love.

I shed more than one tear watching End Game, but the melancholy sparked by the film’s central premise is soothed by the compassion, hope and grace expressed by its characters. Death is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be miserable.

End Game can be streamed on Netflix.

A Night at the Garden

Length: 7 mins

A fraction of the length of its fellow nominees, A Night at the Garden is refreshingly short — but I hesitate to call this eerie piece of archive film “sweet.”

Like something out of a The-Man-in-High-Castle-esque dystopia (yet reminiscent of rallies covered in the news over the last five years), the filmmaker Marshall Curry edits together footage from a Feb. 20, 1939 “pro American rally” in Madison Square Garden.

The Garden that evening was outfitted with an enormous, head-to-toe image of George Washington, flanked by two Nazi banners. As a troop of white boys march to the stage holding American flags, Nazi salutes are thrown out from a crowd of 20,000. The ensuing pageantry, combining American and Third Reich nationalism, is a disturbing and forgotten episode in the lead-up to World War II.

I’ll refrain from discussing the film further, and instead urge you to set aside a few minutes and give it a watch yourself. A Night at the Garden can be viewed in its entirety in the video above, as well as on Vimeo.

Lifeboat

Length: 26 mins

The most high-action, visceral and politically urgent of the nominees, Lifeboat puts a face — or several hundred of them — to the mounting refugee crisis in northern Africa.

The film follows a crew with Sea-Watch, a German nonprofit dedicated to sweeping the Mediterranean Sea for stranded migrants, on a single day of duty in 2016, during which they rescue more than 1,000 men, women and children jammed into three drifting rafts. As they toss the imperiled migrants orange life vests and meticulously transport them to the main boat (children, mothers and the sick and injured first), the camera catches their faces, trauma apparent in both their sobs and, more commonly, blank stares.

Some migrants offer the film crew interviews. Women spoke of being raped, beat and trafficked in their home countries; several men were kidnapped and held for ransom, imprisoned when their family couldn’t pay. It’s clear only the most dire of circumstances would lead human beings to board these rafts, which set sail in the middle of the night from the Libyan coast, in hopes of a better life. More than 10 percent of those who undertake the journey drown before reaching Europe.

The Sea-Watch crew is captained by Jon Castle, a former Greenpeace worker who died in January 2018. “The farther away you are from a [crisis], the easier it is to rationalize,” Castle says. “The closer you are … they become individuals. You have to start thinking of them as people, and your heart starts working over your head.”

Lifeboat is not an easy watch, but it highlights one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our era, one that will only escalate as the effects of climate changes displace millions worldwide. And there is a silver lining: ordinary people like Castle who use their skills and compassion to complete extraordinary acts of heroism.

The film can be viewed in its entirety on the New Yorker‘s YouTube channel.

Period. End of Sentence.

Length: 26 mins

Though period talk may solicit a blush from some Americans, it’s still an ever-present aspect of our lives and culture, from store shelves stocked with dozens of different pads, tampons and menstrual cups to girls’ first periods being used as coming-of-age plot points in TV and movies.

But in India, the bodily process is rarely discussed.

“Menstruation is the biggest taboo in the country,” says Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian entrepreneur and, by all accounts, one of the most important male advocates of women’s rights and autonomy living today.

Muruganantham’s award-winning invention — a low-cost, easy-to-use machine to manufacture sanitary pads — is central to Period. End of Sentence., but the film itself focuses more on the women of Hapir, a rural village outside of Delhi, who use the machine to start a small revolution.

The film begins by interviewing local men and women about periods. Some responses are funny, as men uncomfortably dance around the topic and girls giggle and squirm. Many are disquieting: one woman describes having to quit school after she began menstruating, as there was no place to change her cloth in private; others described not being allowed to pray or visit the temple during their periods, and resorting to using unhygienic wads of fabric or paper to absorb the blood in the total absence of feminine hygiene products.

Led by Sneha, a young woman who shuns the idea of marriage and aspires to become a police officer, a group of local women learn to use the pad machine, demonstrate the effectiveness of the pads to area women and girls, and, despite plenty of squirms and blushes, start selling out their stocks. For many of the workers, the makeshift pad factory is their first job, a source of needed income and self-respect.

The perfect balance of humor and humanity, Period. End of Sentence. is an uplifting feminist tale exemplifying the importance of education, opportunity and empowerment.

“The strongest creature created by God in the world: not the lion, not the elephant, not the tiger. The girl,” proclaims Muruganantham. Amen.

Check the FilmScene calendar to catch a screening of these and other Oscar-nominated shorts.

The 91st Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. on ABC. FilmScene will screen the awards during their Blue Carpet Bash, free and open to the public.


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