A look at the Nominated Documentary Shorts for 2015.

by Martin Hafer

Of all the times I go to the theater each year, my favorite shows that I never miss are the special showings of the Oscar-nominated shorts. I absolutely love the live action and animated shorts as they tend to be a lot of fun. However, in a few select markets, they also show the documentary shorts–and I’m starting to wonder if I might have been better off just staying home this year. Now, this isn’t because the films were bad or unworthy of the nominations. No, the problem is that they’re the most miserably depressing lot of films I have ever seen. This isn’t that surprising, as most years a majority of the nominees are depressing…but 2015’s selections are just god-awful and draining. In the past, the films have often been sad but tried to effect meaningful change. However, this year, they’re mostly just depressing. Worth seeing? Perhaps. That is unless you’re already depressed, as these films might just push you over the edge! So, if you see these films, I advise you to go have a nice lunch afterwards or take your dog for a walk or cuddle puppies. Do anything so that you can keep your sense of perspective and mental health.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1: Grade: A+

The first of the films in the special showing this year is the best of the lot and my pick to win the Oscar. It’s a film from HBO Pictures called Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Depressing…you betcha! But unlike most of the other films, this one promotes change and awareness–which are why I traditionally love documentary shorts. In addition, while this one will probably make you shed a few tears, it IS rather optimistic in that none of the folks whose stories you hear were successful in killing themselves. The story is set at a nationwide suicide hotline for American active duty and veteran soldiers. This nationwide hotline is in Canandaigua, New York and it focuses on the workers and supervisors at this crisis line. Throughout the film, you follow various workers as they take phone calls from despondent soldiers or their families. You do not hear the callers–just the workers and it is very, very tense but satisfying to hear them saving lives. The film really is terrific and draws needed attention to the very serious problem of emotionally wounded soldiers. Well made in every way.

Joanna: Grade: B

Joanna is a Polish film about a woman who is dying from cancer. It focuses a lot on her relationship with her son (who appears to be about six years-old) as well as a bit less attention on her partner. There really isn’t a lot to it–just snippets over a period of several months as she sickens and anticipates death. Oddly, despite the super-depressing subject matter, I felt a bit detached from all this–possibly because I went through cancer myself at a young age like the lady in the film. It’s well made but it didn’t seem to offer much in the way of hope or direction. Just a lady going through the motions with her family until she dies.

White Earth: Grade: C-

Set in rural North Dakota, White Earth is the least depressing of the films, though it also seems to be rather aimless. Most Americans know that this is a barren, freezing and sparsely populated region, as well as maybe being the least visited part of the country. Because it doesn’t have a lot of what folks would consider “natural beauty” and it’s so miserably cold, I appreciate what the filmmakers had to do to make this picture. I just wish I knew what point it was trying to make. Perhaps there is none. We see interviews of a lot of kids and one adult, and several interesting topics were raised but never really explored on their own. I really think the film might have been better had it focused on one of these topics in more depth. There was a boy who appeared to be about 12 who doesn’t go to school. Instead he just wanders about town, plays video-games and tosses ninja throwing stars. I would’ve loved to have known why he didn’t go to school, as there was one featured in this tiny oil-producing town. There was also a very interesting Hispanic family which hasd very high hopes for their children’s future, working hard to bring them a better life. And, there is a local girl who loves animals and thinks the oil production is messing up the look of the area–though I found it hard to relate, as oil has to come from some place so it might as well be this wasteland. A discussion about the oil production’s impact on the environment is certainly interesting and worth pursuing but it really wasn’t discussed much.

The Reaper: Grade: B+

The Reaper is a horrible film to watch, though, technically it’s one of the best made documentary shorts, as the cinematography and composition are excellent. It’s the story of a slaughterhouse in Mexico and a man who is nicknamed “The Reaper” because his job is to kill cows–something he’s been doing for over two decades–hundreds of times every day. If you ever want to eat meat again, I suggest you do not see this one as the slaughterhouse is filthy. So, regardless of the brutality of killing the animals (which you do get to see up close at times), you meat-eaters out there will be shocked at the flies, dried blood and filthy conditions. The Reaper is reminiscent of the old Upton Sinclair novel The Jungle. Well made but uber-depressing, that’s for sure. It also made me wonder how the filmmakers gained access to this place and why they didn’t try to clean the place up a bit for the film.

Our Curse: Grade: B

Our Curse is the final film of the show and it’s about a young and extremely depressed couple whose baby has a god-awful congenital breathing difficulty. If the child is not hooked up to a breathing machine that breaths for him while he’s sleeping, he will die. Also, the equipment this Polish couple uses seems to need a lot of upkeep, as it’s loud and it breaks down with little warning. As a result, the parents just look haggard and depressed, and their lives are dominated by this. Each time you see the father, he seems to be drinking something alcoholic. Your heart really goes out to the couple. It also makes you think about quality of life issues and it’s definitely a film that will hit you hard emotionally. Fortunately, by the end, the couple seem a bit less worn and depressed and the baby has survived to its first birthday. Sadly, this pretty child is still quite ill.

So there you have it–suicides, cancer, dying babies, barren wastelands and a slaughterhouse!!! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! If you do decide to pass up these special screenings of the documentary shorts, do not do the same with the other short films because they’re a much, much more enjoyable viewing experience this year.

As I said in my other article for the Oscar nominees of 2015, which can be read here, I’d love to hear from you. Which films did you particularly enjoy? Which do you think will win the Oscar and which of these films do you disagree with me on?