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Film Review

Oscar Nominated Short Films (2016)

Even dedicated film fans are often stumped at the Academy Awards when it comes to the short categories. When and where are they ever shown? And who has the chance to see them? Well, each year, for the past nine years, a few theaters have screened the final list of Oscar nominated short films. Short films are defined as less than 30 minutes (slightly longer for documentaries), and divided into three categories: live action, animation, and documentary. Most are highly accomplished; documentaries often some of the most powerful films screened in any given year. This is not to suggest that the live action and animated films are less accomplished. They often show the talent that it takes to tell a story, develop a character, and resolve the action in 10 or 15 minutes, a challenge to do well. These films are rarely seen since few theaters are prepared for screenings of such short duration. But a distribution company has bundled the award nominees together in all three categories, five films each, with total screening time (this year) running from about 107 minutes for the live action to 86 minutes for the animated shorts. Taken together, this year's documentaries run 163 minutes. Landmarks' Embarcadero and Opera Plaza, the Shattuck, the Rafael and the Camera 3 (San Jose) are all screening the live action and animateds, but only the Rafael and the Camera 3 are showing the documentaries because of their length. All opened last weekend and will probably continue to screen for another two weeks. Don't miss them: they are gems. The documentaries are particularly powerful and often dark, each an example of accomplished film making. These will stay in your head (and heart) for a long time.

The first documentary is Body Team 12, a 13 minute Liberian film about a team that collects and buries the bodies of Ebola victims from households. It is narrated by the only female member of the team. The virus is highly contagious and specially equipped teams like these pick up the bodies and disinfect the houses before being disinfected themselves, still in their haz mat suits. Often the families want to bury their dead themselves, and must be persuaded to let the team do it. This is dangerous, gruesome work for which the families are not always grateful. Ultimately, even after months at this horrific job, the young narrator remains optimistic, still intent on a career in medicine.

The second film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, is a 40 minute Pakistani work that tells the story of an 18 year old woman, Saba, whose family tries to kill her because she eloped with a man of whom her family didn't approve. Shot, thrown in a river, she manages to survive. Her father and uncle, the perpetrators, are totally unrepentant. In fact, they are both proud to uphold the honor of the family. Saba's birth mother agrees with the punishment but her new mother in law is outraged and protective of the girl. Saba is very courageous and determined not to be pressured into forgiving her father and uncle. This is powerful stuff which stuns us with the consequences of the vulnerability of women in conservative Muslim societies. Filmed by a female Pakistani director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who took many risks to make her film. Not surprisingly, this film has been very controversial in Pakistan.

Last Day of Freedom, a 32 minute American film, is in an unusual format for a documentary: animated pen and ink drawings, telling this very sad tale of PTSD, racism, family love, and the death penalty. Its riveting story is narrated by Bill Babbitt, the older brother of Manny Babbitt. Despite a childhood brain injury, Manny served two tours in Vietnam, including at Khe Sanh, returning home with what we now recognize as PTSD. He lived on the street for a while before his brother found him and took him into his home in Sacramento. Manny probably killed someone and Bill has to decide whether to turn Manny in to the police. He does so, to his regret, and finds his brother represented by an incompetent attorney who doesn't raise the issues that would have kept Manny from a death sentence. Painful to watch, this is a powerful and illuminating commentary on justice in America.

Chau, Beyond the Lines, a 34 minute Vietnamese and American film, about a teenager, Chau, who was probably exposed to Agent Orange as a fetus. Born with severe birth defects Chau has only limited use of his malformed arms and legs. But, a keen observer, he begins to draw and paint in the children's home where he grows up. Chau uses his mouth to hold his brushes. His determination to be an artist and live normally is compelling. The scenes in the children's home showing the community of similar children are wonderful but very poignant.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, is the final documentary. A first-time 40 minute film by a British screenwriter, Adam Benzine, who looks closely at Claude Lanzmann and his monumental documentary film, Shoah (1985). The work takes it name from the Hebrew word for Holocaust. Lanzmann spent 12 years filming, and finally edited 200 hours of footage down to nine and half hours. It is comprised entirely of current interviews with ex-Nazis (most not so ex), witnesses and Holocaust survivors, plus Lanzmann's footage of death camp and transit locations. Lanzmann does not use any archival footage. Many critics and film historians consider Shoah one of the finest documentaries ever produced, and despite its length, Shoah is consistently riveting, powerful and insightful. Benzine has a long interview with Lanzmann, who talks about the psychological cost of making the film and his early career, including his service in the French underground and close friendships with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is an extraordinary film that seems surprising from a first-time director. Every minute is riveting. This film sold out at the Jewish Film Festival last year, and for those who missed it, here is your chance.

As you've surmised, these Short Documentaries are about often terrible events, but leavened with the extraordinary determination of their subjects to transcend their circumstances. Their determination is truly awesome. These are all examples of brilliant film making about important issues. I don't mean to slight the Live Action and the Animated Shorts, which are some of the best in a number of years. All are imaginative, very well done, and substantive. Seeing all of the shorts is the equivalent of a fine film festival, seen in a number of hours rather than days. You will be astonished at the power and quality of these films. They are greatness on screen. I've used the word "powerful" often in this review because nothing less describes these accomplished films.

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