Ahhh, the shorts. With the three different categories of live action, documentary, and animation, the short film categories can make or break your Oscar ballot every year. Even though the Academy is slowly making strides for more inclusivity with its membership and winners, the shorts always represent a wide swath of artistry that trots all over the world.
Unlike years past, the Academy extended the amount of entries on the shortlists from 10 to 15. Will that make it more difficult to predict the five nominees? Last year’s winner, Colette, is an emotional experience, and I always say that a good rule of thumb for predicting the winner of the Documentary Short Subject category is to go with the most emotional. With these 15 entries, however, that could prove to be a difficult decision.
82 films qualified for this category this season, and the 15 shortlisted docs range from the celebration of an unknown queer artist to a knowledgeable breakdown of the events of January 6, 2021. Let’s take a look at the strengths of all the entries. Almost every single one of these films is available to stream now.
Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’
Between 1880 and 1968, there were an estimated 4,000 lynchings in the United States. That staggering statistic rings through your head the entire time you are watching Christine Turner’s film, Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day.’ The violence against Black Americans was treated quite literally like a picnic or event, and people would take pictures of these scenes.
Turner shows images of these lynchings very plainly throughout her short film because they were put on postcards and sent throughout the country to other white people to show their attendance. There is a disturbing, ugly truth here that isn’t new, and it shows how audacious racism allowed people to be. You can’t help but think of how the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were videotapes. The audacity is still the same–the technology has just change. Those who reveled in the murder of Black Americans didn’t shield their faces and they didn’t think twice about attending these events.
Turner presents her film in an honest way, and she brings in multiple Black historians like Yohuru Williams and Terry Anne Scott to guide us through.
Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’ is available on Paramount+.
With documentary series like Cheer and Last Chance U, Netflix has made a name for itself in showing how students balance sports with their everyday troubles. Matt Ogens’ Audible could be a shorter extension of that realm of storytelling, and I want to know more about the students attending Maryland School for the Deaf.
We meet three students not long after the suicide of a gay student named Teddy. Teddy’s best friend, Amaree, lost his hearing at a young age, and his father left because he didn’t think he could raise a son who couldn’t hear. Amaree has a close relationship with his mother, and we keep coming back to a touching moment where she and her son flip through a photo album. Jalen dated Teddy, and he is making a concerted effort to live his life as authentically as possible. Lera, Amaree’s girlfriend, questions the connection between her and the football star.
A concern both expressed and looming over the film is what happens to these kids when they leave Maryland School for the Deaf. They have a support system with school as well as on the field, but, as Amaree explains, how will the outside world embrace them when they are separated from people like them? There is a threat of loneliness and a fear of being misunderstood that is very palpable. It shouldn’t be a question of how they will deal as they grow up, but those of us who can hear need to make an effort to include people who aren’t as abled as we are. I want an entire series devoted to these students.
Audible is available on Netflix.
Águilas is like watching a mystery unfold in real time. Before the title card is revealed, we hear real voicemail messages left by desperate family members, and we are informed that the remains of close to 200 migrants are found in the deserts of southern Arizona every year. The Águilas del Desierto search every weekend to help bring closure and solace to families who are missing people they love.
What struck me most is how we don’t learn that names of the people hunting for clues as the sun beats down. That isn’t important because they clearly have a mission. This is a small group of people with their own practices and procedures. They can sense that they are getting close when they find a random water jug or clothing left behind. Any time they find human remains, it is always a shock. Normally, the anonymity would be frustrating in a feature length film but director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan is very respectful of their mission.
We become invested quickly even though we don’t know names or circumstances. The people who vanish are longing to make the lives of their families better, and it makes it all the more tragic when a life is found cut short.
Águilas is available on The New Yorker’s YouTube page.
There is a volatile patience that Academy Award winning director, Laura Poitras, brings to her latest short, Terror Contagion. Poitras won her first Oscar in the Documentary Feature category for Citizenfour, the film that chronicled Edward Snowden’s involvement in the NSA spying scandal. Poitras turns her attention to another surveillance threat.
An Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer, known as the NSO Group, has been selling a malware software to countries with poor human rights records, and they use the technology to intimidate and even carry out violence against activists and journalists. The Pegasus software can activate your phone, camera, and microphone, and it has been discovered in 45 countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Poitras shows how a threat like this could make it to America by showing glimpses of police presence at last summer’s Black Live Matter protests. The investigative team has graphs thrown up on the screen that show the slow moving escalation of threats, and it’s shocking how methodical and constant it is. With Poitras behind the camera, this is one to watch out for.
Terror Contagion is available on YouTube.
When We Were Bullies
Jay Rosenblatt’s When We Were Bullies is an earnest look at one man’s attempt to do the right thing when it might be too late. With social media leading the charge on taking complete strangers down for their opinions on anything from politics to, say, movies, Rosenblatt takes a deep dive into his own memory and history.
We often hear stories about those who are bullied in their youth and how they take measures to get over it. Some don’t get beyond it, unfortunately. Being taunted for your weight or your clothes or the way you present yourself at a young age is very common, but Rosenblatt recounts a story about how a fifth grade class ganged up on a fellow student in the schoolyard. When Rosenblatt remembers the details, he makes it his mission to see how much his class remembers and to make peace.
Roseblatt’s film raises thought-provoking questions about forgiveness and what is assumed in the behavior of children. If you are the one doing the bullying, how much forgiveness should you be afforded? Is getting picked on just a part of childhood? Are the scars of some deeper than the scars of others?
Three Songs for Benazir
A young Afghan couple faces untested challenges in Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei’s Three Songs for Benazir.
Early on in this understated film, we meet Shaista and Benazir, a young couple who are expecting their first child. Shaista serenades his wife with songs as she giggles to the lyrics, and it paints a picture of exuberant youth full of promise. Even though he should be worried about his first child, Shaista is determined to make something of himself by joining the National Army. “Let me learn something,” Shaista tells his father, who objects to his son’s choice.
There is a ominous, white blimp in the sky that looms over them throughout the day. It’s almost as if the people of this village spend all their time trying to ignore its existence. Shaista tells his bridge that either the blimp will kill them in an explosion or the Taliban will murder everyone.
There is an earnest, voyeuristic quality to the Mirzaei’s film. They are clearly interested in Shaista and his drive to make something of himself. I’m curious as to how much Shaista is performing for the camera and how much he is truly being himself. The film takes a turn in the final five minutes that I was not expecting.
Three Songs for Benazir is available on Netflix.
As we look back at the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people were equipped to lock themselves down and isolate from one another. For the members of the Irwin County Detention Center, however, they did not have that luxury. Director Seth Freed Wessler commands the screen in a horror film that we are still working through.
The detention center is a privately owned ICE facility in Ocilla, Georgia, and he introduces us to several detainees who are worried about the looming pandemic. The center is clearly no ready to handle the uncertainty that this pandemic brought, and the detainees are understandably frightened. Our main in is through Nilson Barahona, a Honduran man who has been at Irwin for twenty years, and he informs us that everyone in his immediate family was either born here or is a legal resident of the United States. Andrea Manrique is a 34 year old detainee who arrived in the US with her tourist visa but she made it clear that she didn’t feel safe returning to Colombia.
As COVID rages across the country, these detainees are sitting ducks. There is an unsettling pulse to Wessler’s pacing that makes it feel like a race against time. Month after month, Manrique meets with her lawyer via video chat to be paroled, and Barahona is terrified that his medical conditions will make him succumb to the volatility of the virus. Detainees have to make face masks out of socks.
There is an immediacy to Wessler’s film that proves that even as more vaccines are being administered throughout the country, we are not done telling these stories.
The Facility is available through Field of Vision.
Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U. S. Capitol
January 6, 2021 was not long ago, and the violence of that day is still very fresh in our minds. With so many reports about that day swirling around for months, it’s difficult to put it all into perspective that helps us see how the day slipped into such chaos. Even though politicians later insist that there was no insurrection, the narrator hits home a fact early on in the doc–“the proof id in the footage.”
Most of the footage that we see in Day of Rage is compiled by the rioters themselves, and this film took over six months to complete. Leading up to January 6th, there there were over one million mentions of storming the Capitol found online, but when you hear people screaming to take over the building that Day of Rage is its most chilling. There is so much visceral anger and hatred in the voices of those trying to stop the certification of the 2020 election, and the doc wisely and repeatedly reminds us that those who were there to “stop the steal” only imagined that they were true patriots.
The doc’s biggest strength is how it provides a comprehensive storyline of those chaotic hours. With so much media coverage, it’s so difficult to know where to start when you want a timeline of events. Day of Rage expertly shows how rioters breached both ends of the Capitol and even breaks down every point of entry (between broken down doors and windows, there were eight different placed where rioters entered).
Directors David Botti and Malachy Browne know you don’t want to hear more about this day, but a full, rounded knowledge of that violence is essential. It took me a few tries to get into this documentary, because I could feel my hear beating in my chest the entire time.
Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U. S. Capitol is available on The New York Times‘ YouTube.
Lead Me Home
Towards the end of Netflix’s Lead Me Home, an official says that homelessness in Los Angeles has doubled in only four years. Cities on the West Coast, like Seattle and San Francisco, have declared a state of emergency over homelessness, and Lead Me Home captures images from 2017 to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic will only make those numbers climb.
Directors Jon Shenk and Pedro Kos direct their film with immense sensitivity and intelligence. Not only do they capture footage of the homeless crisis on the West Coast, but they sit down with houseless individuals to gather information on their personal situations and circumstances. Anyone can lose their home, and anyone can find themselves without assistance or close connections. Anyone’s life can spiral out of control, and we need to stop putting negative perspectives on people who haven’t been as fortunate.
We hear stories from individuals who tell us how they get to shower and if they have someone to lean on. One woman feels like she can’t be around a partner because he inflicts violence on her, and she fears for her life. There is an observational quality to Shenk and Kos’ film but it is never voyeuristic or gauche. We are witnessing a life different from our own where people have to make do with the spaces that are available to them. Lead Me Home is gentle in its storytelling but urgent in its imagery.
Lead Me Home is available on Netflix, and there are several resources linked on the film’s website to help those in need.
A Broken House
What makes a home? Can you truly recapture the feeling of safety and belonging that you do in your home country? Those are just a few of the questions that face a Syrian refugee in the quiet and mournful doc short, A Broken House.
Mohamad Hafez only received a single-entry visa when he came to the United States to study architecture. He realized that he would never be able to see his Syrian home ever again, but he put his thoughts and memories into the creation of small models, and the result is something wholly unique and incredibly beautiful. When civil war breaks out back home, his parents fled, and Hafez wanted to use his art to humanize refugees and combat perceptions. “There was this fire inside me to start humanizing refugees and tell their stories,” Hafez says in the film.
Jimmy Goldblum gives Hafez space through his twenty minute film, and he captures some truly emotional material. A Broken House has been featured in many film festival over the last year, and it has won several prizes. One of my favorite lines from Jonathan Larson’s Rent is, ‘The opposite of war isn’t peace–it’s creation.’ I kept thinking of that line as I watched Goldblum’s film (obviously a random thing to think due to the wildly different circumstances).
A Broken House is available on The New Yorker’s YouTube.
Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis
World War II has been the subject of many short documentaries nominated for this category (the most recent winner, Colette, was about a former French Resistance member who visited the concentration camp where her brother died), but Camp Confidential details the personal accounts of Jewish soldiers tasked with making the lives of Nazi operatives comfortable in the beginning of Operation Paperclip.
We meet several refugees who are given the most outlandish assignment. They must look after some of Germany’s most sought after scientists after the end of the second world war, and some even have to be ‘morale officers’ to keep them happy. They take these Germans to purchase Christmas gifts for their families back home under the guise of interviewing them so they don’t share allegiances with the Soviet Union. These Jewish soldiers, some who take part in Mor Lushy and Daniel Sivan’s doc, are still conflicted with what they have done.
What sets Camp Confidential apart is that it is an animated documentary, and the imagery allows the viewer to come in in a totally different way. If it was more of a talking heads doc, it would feel dry even with the outlandish story. Even if you know the story of Operation Paperclip, this film is astounding. Did we have to sacrifice out humanity as a means to an end?
Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis is available on Netflix.
Sophie and the Baron
In one of the lighter shortlisted films, two artists come together to admire one another and push each other in ways that they can’t imagine. Sophie Kipner is a California-based artist who met legendary photographer Baron Wolman in London when she made him a vodka tonic. It must’ve been one hell of a drink, because we get to see Kipner work on a collaboration of a lifetime in Sophie and the Baron.
Wolman has taken some of the most iconic musician photographs of all time. He has snapped Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King, and Miles Davis just to name a few. When Rolling Stone began publishing in 1969, Wolman’s work was prominent, and he turned down pay but had stock in the magazine. You’ve seen his photographs even if you don’t know who Wolman is. Kipner’s signature style is an exercise known as blind contouring where she keeps her eyes on what she is drawing, and she doesn’t look at the canvas. It helps the artist get out of her own head, and she tells us that it helped her get over her own fear of what she was drawing.
When Kipner decides to reinterpret Wolman’s photographs, he is on board, and he is very curious. The first photo she selects is a group shot from Woodstock, and director Alexandria Jackson lets us see Kipner’s process. We are dying to find out how she can pull off such a tricky, crowded image.
Sophie and the Baron hits home how you can’t be stubborn while creating art. You can’t be rigid, but it also is important to remember that art and perception changes as time goes on. Kipner is so appreciative of her time with Wolman and you can tell she values his opinion of her work despite the mediums being radically different. You cannot be an artist without being open.
Imagine if you needed medical care, but the hospital you were taken to was known as the Butcher Shop. There are so many horror stories detailed in Emma Francis-Snyder’s Takeover, but, more importantly, it shows the sheer audacity and boldness of The Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican group who modeled themselves after the Black Panthers. Takeover proves that you can’t sit idly by and wait for change to happen.
In the summer of 1970, the Young Lords occupied Lincoln Hospital for twelve hours to protest the barbaric conditions. Stories recall instruments being left in patients, cockroaches crawling through medication cups, and the wrong organs being removed during surgery. Since Lincoln Hospital’s emergency room remains the most visited facility in all of New York City, you can’t help but think of its reputation when you think of a disaster like COVID-19 hitting.
Francis-Snyder’s , is incredibly paced (clocking in at close to 40 minutes, it flies by), and she focuses on the voices of the people who took part in the takeover. The film uses archival footage, voiceover from participants, and recreations to paste everything together, but it’s all so cohesive and looks like it came from one source. I always believe that a testament to a doc short’s quality is whether you want to know more about the subject when it’s over, and Takeover knocked my socks off.
Takeover is available on The New York Times’ YouTube.
The Queen of Basketball
The two things you notice most in Ben Proudfoot’s film are how Lusia Harris moved on the court in her past but her laugh and smile in the present. How have we not been taught about Lusia “Lucy” Harris before now? She is the first women to be drafted to the NBA, and she made the first basket in women’s basketball in the Olympics in 1976.
Harris was always drawn to basketball (Oscar Robinson was her favorite) even if people would comment on her height by saying, “long and tall and that’s all.” In 1972, Title IX passes, and Harris easily makes space for herself on the women’s basketball team. There are a few instances where you see Harris playing and, when she makes a basket, you can see the jubilation as she crosses back down the court.
Proudfoot gives Harris her own space to tell her story, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Her face films the frame as if she’s your favorite relative telling you a story after dinner. She draws you in so easily, and you instantly fall in love with her. I could’ve listened to her tell me the same story over and over and over again. There is something so palpable about seeing this woman so proud of her accomplishments and hint at her regrets, but, all the while, remain positive and happy.
Lusia Harris died just last week. If The Queen of Basketball gets nominated, it would’ve been thrilling to see her at the ceremony, but we need to still cheer her on.
The Queen of Basketball is available on The New York Times’ YouTube.
Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker
I didn’t specifically know who J.C. Leyendecker was, but I know I was familiar with his images and his artwork. Ryan White’s short Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker, is a beautiful tribute to a man who could draw desire and arousal and make it mainstream without straight people knowing. Leyendecker, unfortunately, was never allowed to live authentically. He had to live in the lives of the men he sketched.
White briefly goes through Leyendecker’s history of studying in Paris and moving to New York City, but Leyendecker became more prominent when he created the Arrow Collar Man. Instead of drawing shapeless figures to show off the clothes, Leyendecker gave men a body underneath the fabric. There’s a way that he draws the shoulders and the chest of a man that makes you actually see it rising and falling as he breathes. It caught the eye of women and men alike. Norman Rockwell actually looked to Leyendecker as a mentor, and if you look at their artwork side-by-side, you can see the similarities in their artistry. Rockwell drew the squeaky clean American dream while Leyendecker had to remain silent and tell stories with his subjects’ eyes.
White makes a direct connection to how advertisers made the choice to appeal to gay consumers to visibility that is happening now. He opens his film with a joyous moment where transgender model, Jari Jones, sees herself on a huge billboard for Calvin Klein’s Pride campaign. The film also focuses on how Charles Beach was both the love of Leyendecker’s life and his muse. I wonder what Leyendecker would think about a Subaru ad if he were alive today.
Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker is available on Paramount+.
So, what makes the cut? After seeing them all, I kind of feel more confused than ever, because you don’t know what they have actually seen and you don’t know if they watched everything. Are they doing to stay completely away from Day of Rage and The Facility because our news cycles are dominated by insurrection and pandemic coverage?
When the shortlist was only 10 entries, Netflix grabbed three slots, but only one film (A Love Song for Latasha) made the cut. What Would Sophia Loren Do? and The Speed Cubers missed out. The previous year, Life Overtakes Me, was the only Netflix entry in this category to land a nomination.
My gut reaction is:
Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis
The Queen of Basketball
Watch out for:
A Broken House
Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker
Lead Me Home
Sophie and the Baron