Excellent… but, as usual, massively depressing to watch

by Martin Hafer

Each February, theaters around the country show the Oscar-nominated live action as well as animated short films…and each year, more and more cities get these special showings.  However, far less popular and more difficult to find are the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts….and this is most likely because these shorts are almost always very, very difficult to watch.  They are, by and large, incredibly depressing and seeing many of them in one day is something I don’t recommend for everyone…they can be that overwhelmingly sad.  This year’s lot is pretty much I expected and, oddly, the least depressing one is a film about the man who made Shoah…a 10-hour documentary about the slaughter of Jews during World War II!  Like I said, these aren’t for everyone and they are amazingly depressing!

Body Team 12

This is the shortest of the documentaries and was shown first.  The film is about folks who work for the Red Cross in Liberia and their job is to clean up the dead bodies from Ebola and then incinerate them.  You see a few corpses in the short but, thank God, the footage is actually rather tame and the story of these courageous people inspiring…but depressing beyond believe.  After all, what is more depressing than Ebola?!  Well made and I am glad these wonderful people and their work are being celebrated…but when the special showing starts off with an Ebola film, you know it’s going to be a long day!

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

This film is set in Pakistan and is about so-called ‘honor killings’–when families murder their own daughters in order to save face with their neighbors.  The particular subject of this film is a young lady named Saba.  Saba married a man despite her family not giving her permission and her father and uncle dealt with it by shooting her and dumping her into the river.  However, Saba’s case is unusual because she actually survived the gunshot to her face and the film follows the case through the Pakistani court and to its ultimate resolution…or lack of resolution.  The film is hellaciously depressing but fortunately the gunshot wound isn’t as horrible to see post-surgically as you might imagine and Saba is rather inspiring because of her inner strength.  It’s also an amazing film because everyone talks so openly about what occurred and the father seems incredibly proud of his actions and by the end of the film he is elated that he maintained his sense of honor by trying to murder his daughter.

By the way, if you are curious, the filmmakers and folks they interviewed were careful to reiterate that these honor killings are not in any way approved of in the Koran but are more cultural than religious in nature.

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Last Day of Freedom

This is by far the most creative and striking of all these documentaries.  Instead of being told as a traditional narrative, the story is animated–and in a very new and creative manner.  At first, the animation was hard on the eyes and I disliked it…but the further the film progressed the more I found it really worked well…so well that the film could easily have been nominated in the Best Animated Short category as well.

This is the story of Manny, as told by his older brother.  Apparently Manny was brain damaged and suffered from mental illnesses (such as PTSD which resulted from his terms in Vietnam as well as schizophrenia).  Eventually, Manny commits a murder and the film recounts the events leading up to it, his brother’s involvement in the investigation and the outcome.  The story is a striking indictment against capital punishment, as it’s very, very difficult to believe that anyone would execute a man this mentally disturbed.  And, unlike the other documentary shorts, this one might actually result in some positive change.  In most of the others, they’re depressing but the viewer is mostly left feeling helpless to do anything about the issues being presented.  This is clearly my pick for the best of the documentaries and I strongly recommend you see it.  It’s well made, totally unique and will challenge the audience in many ways.

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Most of this film is set in a residential program for severely disabled children whose parents mothers were exposed to Agent Orange.  Apparently decades after the end of the Vietnam War, children are continuing to be born with horrendous problems–such as missing limbs, twisted and stunted limbs, facial anomalies and the like.  All of the residents appear severely disabled and the filmmakers focus in particular on a teenager named Chau.  Eventually, Chau leaves the program and briefly returns home to live with his family.  But with nothing productive to do with himself, eventually he moves to the city and inexplicably learns to make a living as an artist despite his very extreme physical challenges.  While it’s disturbing to see such disfigured kids, it’s also an uplifting film at times due to Chau’s spirit and unwillingness to give up.  Not an easy film to watch but among the easier films to watch from this year’s selection of Oscar nominees.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

After eleven years of work, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann finally released Shoah, the longest and most comprehensive documentary of the extermination of the Jews during World War II.  At 10 hours in length, it’s a real chore to watch but this film doesn’t focus so much on his final product but  on Lanzmann’s personal efforts to get the film made.  Very few clips from his epic film are shown but instead the film consists of interviews with Lanzmann and others as well as some never before shown footage Lanzmann secretly shot for Shoah but never actually used.  You also learn about about Lanzmann’s personal life and relationships…but only a bit.  In many ways, the documentary was interesting but it left you feeling as if Lanzmann’s story was still quite incomplete.

If these well made but depressing films sound like something you might like to see, go the website for the program here to see where and when the program as well as the other shorts programs are being presented.  As for me, when the films were over, I decided to treat myself to barbecue and beer as I needed to do something to keep up my spirits and the shorts were a tough batch to watch this year…which wasn’t very surprising.  And, in my life, there are very few things more wonderful than great barbecue and microbrewed beer!