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Film Review

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary

Each year, for the past eight years, a few theaters have been screening the Oscar nominations for short films. Short films are defined as those less than 30 minutes (slightly longer for documentaries), and divided into three categories: live action, animated, and documentary. Usually the live action shorts are the most accomplished but this (and last) year the documentaries are phenomenal, and in my opinion, the best thing that I have seen on screen so far this year. Four of the five documentaries have a power rarely seen, and are as good as you will see on screen. But seeing these films in a theater can be difficult because because only the Rafael (San Rafael) and the Camera 3 (San Jose) are now screening the documentaries. Landmark Theaters in San Francisco screened the documentaries last year but as of yesterday were uncertain whether they will add them. The main problem for theaters is the combined length of the documentaries: 160 minutes plus an intermission. The other two categories, animated and live action, are playing more widely including at Landmark's Embarcadero and Opera Plaza theaters. The San Rafael and San Jose locations for the documentaries may be inconvenient, but if you go, you will have a profound film experience.

The first documentary is Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (USA), whose title clearly describes the film. The film looks at a day in the Veterans Crisis Center at the VA Hospital in Canadaigua, New York. This center operates 24/7 with 250 responders who field calls from distressed veterans, many of whom are not only depressed, but about to kill themselves. The responders are often veterans themselves or spouses. We watch and listen to a responder who has answered a call, with a very distressed vet stating that he is going to kill himself because he cannot stop the terrible dreams and anxiety. The responder is very calm and reassuring, trying to engage the caller by asking about their troubles and reminding them that there are people here who want to help. She says that just as you suit up, check your weapons, and rely on your team mates, we are your teammates now and will help. The operator also asks about family and reminds them of the terrible hurt to those left behind. One man is reminded that he is the father of 5 children, and asked "who will help them'? The goal is to get an EM team there to take the person to a hospital. The operator always asks if they have a weapon with them, and if so, the police must be called to be sure the site is safe for the EMT personnel. The operator levels with the caller, telling them what they are doing and that they should expect the police. Some are actually in the process of killing themselves, like the man who had already swallowed a large quantity of drugs. The operator keeps telling him to stay awake, but fretting that the ambulance is taking too long. Calls keep coming, sometimes with good outcomes and sometimes with bad. A responder relates an experience that didn't turn out well and agonizes about whether he could have done better. It's clear that this work takes a toll on the responders. We listen to several in their entirely, including one where the vet is in the desert on Christmas Eve, about to shoot himself. This is powerful stuff as we listen to anguished vets who feel there are no other choices than suicide. There is a tension here that is unusual in a documentary film as the responders struggle to engage and help the callers. Everyone knows the stakes are high. The center received 22,000 crisis calls last year. Few of us are aware of this, but since 2001, more veterans kill themselves each year than die in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the problem is repeated tours due to the smaller size of the volunteer Army and the chronically underfunded VA medical system. Although hero is an often overused word, these responders are definitely that. This film was funded by HBO, an increasingly important player in the documentary film world.

Joanna (Poland) is a very intimate look at a mother, Joanna, who we learn later has terminal cancer, trying to prepare her young son for her death in a way that will not traumatize the boy even further. She is very centered and her conversations with her son are profoundly inspired and lyric. Her husband is loving and supportive, and they have moved to the country so that Joanna can be surrounded the beauty and quiet of nature. The outdoor scenes are beautiful in an art film way, which almost belies Joanna's decline. Toward the end, Joanna says to her husband that she "is not afraid to die. I'm afraid to leave you by yourselves." Joanna is beautifully shot in a distinctly non documentary fashion and clearly made by a very talented film maker. A second Polish film, Our Curse, is coincidentally about a young couple whose newborn has a rare congenital breathing disease that requires him to constantly be on a ventilator. This too is a very intimate film, with scenes of the exhausted couple lying on a couch at the end of the day talking and comforting each other. The scenes of the breathing tube being withdrawn for cleaning and reinserted in the infant's neck are startling at first, but the parents learn how to do this quickly and safely. Troubles with the ventilator add to their anxieties. Like Joanna, this is a powerful, beautifully composed film. In an unusual twist, the husband, Tomasz Sliwinski, is the film maker.

White Earth (USA) is set in North Dakota in the tiny town of White Earth and looks at the effect of the oil boom on children. Nearly all the children's parents work in the oil field, whether on a drilling rig, driving a truck or indoor work such as cooking. At least one of the children, a cute chubby boy, doesn't go to school. He narrates much of the film and his father calls him 6 times a day to be sure he is ok. The winter weather is horrible, but the kids become great skaters. This is not a community we would recognize; most of the housing are trailers and pickups greatly outnumber cars. White Earth is a frontier sort of place where people can make money to pay off debts and hopefully begin a new life. After the bust, it will return to the tiny town it was before, except that the countryside will be forever scarred.

The Reaper (Mexico) looks at a man who has spent 25 years in a small rural slaughterhouse killing animals as they come in to be butchered. He was given the name Reaper by his fellow workers. There is some narration by the Reaper as we watch the roughly built facility working, with its gates, conveyors, and lines of ominous hooks moving continuously. The cows come in from trucks, trot single file to a killing stall, and then are cut apart quickly by men with very sharp knives. This is a Piranesian vision of a slaughterhouse, and at the end of a shift, everyone and everything is covered with blood. They do this for their families, and are grateful for the work. The Reaper has a haunted look but his thoughts about his work and life are surprisingly eloquent. A very moving film, extremely well made but disturbing with its hellish vision of industrialized slaughter and dehumanizing work. No burgers for me for a while.

I've used the work "powerful" often in this review, but every one of these films have a force that is rarely seen on the screen. No talking heads here. They are all outstanding examples of the new wave of documentary film makers at their peak, and all are unforgettable. Although the topics can be disturbing, these films are inspirational rather than depressing. As I mentioned, not easy to see them, but well worth the drive.

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