The youngest of the three Oscar shorts categories, documentary shorts are both the vigorous upstarts and the weary middle-agers, questioning themselves and their creative vision in a productive midlife crisis. A new wave of feature-length documentaries has been lapping away at the bar between fiction and non for a little while now (Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, Leviathan), and that slippery approach to reality is represented in condensed form in this year’s documentary short Oscar nominees.
Like “The Phone Call,” a live-action nominated short I wrote about earlier this week, the documentary nominee “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” is set amid the entrenched drama and tenuously vital connections of a crisis hotline center. This makes for an easy, if not definite, comparison, and in this round of live action vs. documentary, the latter wins.
Coming out of HBO, for some time now a reliable source of strong documentary shorts, Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” is startling, humane, and open-ended. It takes as its subject this country’s only veterans crisis call center. (More soldiers die from self-inflicted wounds that from active combat). The film never meets or plays the voices of these men and women on the other end, nor do we learn much about the center’s call responders and their supervisors; the film and its subjects are thoughtful but hold on tight to their feelings. What’s clear, however, is the weight and urgency of this too easily unseen issue. “Crisis Hotline”’s recording of the unpredictable, raw, and temporary relationships forged during a phone call makes for a humane and stirring document of empathy and disaster.
“La Parka (The Reaper),” by Gabriel Serra Arguello, probes another, differently hidden world: a Mexican slaughterhouse. Lyrically brutal images of blood-splattered walls resemble Jackson Pollock drip paintings, while the recurring vision of cows trundling to their spasmodic deaths is frightening and almost mystical, recalling Francis Bacon in more than just hanging slabs of meat. The film is a macabre and searching take on mortality, work, and meaning.
Two of the nominees suggesting an emerging, confessional Polish documentary generation: “Our Curse” and “Joanna,” both intimate records of families living through illness, where affection is never far from fear. Aneta Kopacz’s “Joanna” follows a family of three: the title subject, her husband, and their precocious, wise, achingly innocent young son, who’s having a divine time with his mother but isn’t able to wholly grasp what’s happening — Joanna has cancer. Still, “Joanna” is concerned less with the illness and more with family, its close-up, unguarded scenes an attempt to create an impression of the invisible ties between a mother and her son.
In “Our Curse,” a New York Times Op-Doc, a young couple unsparingly records the difficulties — medical and existential — of raising a newborn son who has Ondine’s Curse, a rare and incurable congenital disorder. Whereas “Joanna” is astonishingly hopeful and puts on a strong face, the parents in “Our Curse,” who are also its filmmakers, are bravely open about their uncertainty and dejection. What if their son wants to kill himself when he grows up?, the father (Tomasz Sliwinski) wonders. In their willingness to say to the camera the things we usually only say in private (or in our heads), the pair make the struggle of “Our Curse” a difficult inspiration: a curse that’s part of a blessing, as opposed to a blessing in a curse. “Joanna” is beautiful and tender, but “Our Curse” is thorny and loving, and feels more honest because of it.
“White Earth,” by J. Christian Jensen, also focuses on children, but in a much different way. For its contemplation of the swiftly changed and changing landscape of the North Dakota oil boom, “White Earth” turns to that class of lesser heard voices. Kids, it turns out, are a perceptive bunch to discuss this very adult world; there’s a virtue to their simultaneous knowledge and ignorance of what’s happening around them. Meeting with newcomers to the state as well as born-and-raised tiny North Dakotans, the film shares their untutored reflections on the changes being made on their behalf, though not by their own hopes or hands. A student project, “White Earth” is yet more proof of an exciting new class of filmmakers, something this year’s nominated documentary shorts — and many of the animated and live-action ones too — make a compelling argument to be hopeful for.
The 2015 Academy Award–nominated short films are playing at IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, West Village, Manhattan), BAM (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn), and Vimeo, as well as select theaters around the country.