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2017 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts Review: Humanity Prevails in This Politically Charged Group

The five Oscar-nominated short documentaries each tell deeply human stories beyond the headlines.

When the nominees for best short films are read during the Oscars ceremony, most viewers at home have little to no associations with any of the films. That’s something that ShortsHD is hoping to fix when they partner with Magnolia Pictures to show the nominated films in all three short form categories — live action, animated, and documentary — in 500 screens across North America this Friday. This year’s short documentaries are not lighthearted, but tell vital human stories about resistance in the face of suffering.

READ MORE: 2017 Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts Review: Current Events Are the Stars of This All-Foreign Group

Three of the films show different groups affected by the war in Syria: The civilians risking their lives for their homeland, the bystanders thrust into the fray, and the children caught in the crosshairs, while the other two offerings also highlight personal sacrifice in the face of struggle. Each film sends a necessary but frank message for uncertain times — one of hope, perseverance, and resistance.

“Joe’s Violin” (24 minutes)

“Joe’s Violin”

Former “Daily Show” co-executive producer Kahane Cooperman brings a lighthearted touch to the otherwise serious crop of films, though the rare story uncovered in “Joe’s Violin” is substantial in its own right. Tracing the path of one Holocaust survivor’s violin from the displaced persons camp where he bought it and into the capable hands of a 13-year-old girl from the Bronx, “Joe’s Violin” is a genuine tearjerker that checks all the right boxes.

When Joseph Feingold donated his beloved violin to an instrument drive on WQXR radio, he wrote a single sentence on the donation slip about his past. The story caught the attention of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation running the drive, and they specially chose the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls to receive the violin. The charter school in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country decided Brianna Perez would get to play the violin, citing her emotive playing as the reason. Brianna sets about learning an old song Joe’s mother used to sing him, and performs it for him when they meet.

Jumping between Joe’s history and eager schoolyard discussions between Brianna and her friends, “Joe’s Violin” brings an unlikely pair together through their love of music. Just as music helped Joe recover and thrive from unspeakable struggle, his violin will give Brianna a chance to thrive in a different way. It’s an amazing story, told well, and a sorely needed reminder of art’s power to heal and uplift.

Grade: A-

“The White Helmets” (41 minutes)

White Helmets

“The White Helmets”

Netflix

A volunteer group of civilians are the first responders on the scene after the endless string of attacks carried out by ISIS in the city of Aleppo, Syria. They are the Syrian Civil Defense, or the White Helmets, and they risk their lives daily to help their countrymen. In moving one-on-one interviews, the eloquent and open subjects anchor this high-voltage film with emotional sincerity.

As soon as they hear an explosion, the men of the White Helmets rush to the dust-filled wreckage in search of survivors, and sometimes bodies. In frenzied images they clear out shards of rubble with shovels to find whomever is trapped, even unearthing a week-old baby whom they dub “the miracle baby.” Completely untrained, the group must leave their families for a month to train in Turkey. When they do, the destruction continues and they must watch on the television, waiting for news of family members with baited breath.

Directors Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara’s subjects are easy to connect with, even if their situation is so unimaginable. Time and again, the men of the White Helmets emphasize that each child feels like their child, each person lost may as well have been a brother. Their bravery would be unbelievable were it not for this film.

Grade: B

“4.1 Miles” (26 minutes)

“4.1 Miles”

NY Times

A mini companion to “Fire At Sea,” Gianfranco Rossi’s Oscar-nominated feature documentary, “4.1 Miles” follows Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a Greek Coast Guard captain, throughout his daily rescue missions as boatloads of Syrian refugees cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesbos. Subtly more graphic than “The White Helmets,” filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki does not sugarcoat anything.

There is the small child, hanging limply by her feet, naked, as three women slap her back to get the water out of her lungs, before they announce she is breathing and wrap her in a blanket. Or the motionless bodies of two children who had been fished from the cold waters, as Papadopoulos performs CPR, angrily looking on at the ambulance that took too long to arrive. Just when the camera begins to seem invasive, he says: “The world needs to know what’s going on here. We can’t be going through this alone.”

READ MORE: Oscar 2017 Documentary Shorts: Syria Dominates, But All 5 Explore Humanity Beyond Headlines

The shaky handheld shots give the feeling of being right there in the boat, which Matziaraki was (at one point, Papadopoulos tells her to “put down the camera”). It is difficult to stomach, but to look away would be shameful. Matziaraki finds losses both great and small: On top of the death and misery he witnesses every day, Papadopoulos also mourns the beauty of his beloved Greek sea as it becomes a site of tragedy. It’s a small moment, but adds yet another note of humanity to a story that often feels too overwhelming to understand from afar.

Grade: B

“Extremis” (24 minutes)

“Extremis”

Netflix

Dan Krauss’ profile of one doctor and the terminally ill patients she serves takes a nuanced look at palliative care, and the issues almost everyone has had to or will have to deal with at some point. In the course of the film’s short running time, Dr. Jessica Zitter has a lifetime of uncomfortable conversations as she flies from patient to patient, staying miraculously even-handed and empathetic.

Through a variety of patients and their families, we see the myriad ways in which people react to making one of the most difficult decisions imaginable. One brother is so tender with his dying sister, explaining each possibility to her patiently as she struggles to communicate. A young daughter is not so understanding, reading her unresponsive mother’s beating heart as a sign that she wishes to remain alive — even on a breathing tube. Zitter is equal parts firm and sensitive, never rushing decision-making.

The subject is ripe for a more in-depth look, and more background on Zitter would have added some color, but “Extremis” works as a short standalone piece that is genuinely moving without trying too hard.

Grade: B

“Watani: My Homeland”

“Watani: My Homeland”

Marcel Mettelsiefen

Four young children living on the front-lines of the war in Aleppo provide a painfully human window into Syrian war in this shockingly intimate film from Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis. Though the parents are pivotal to the story, witnessing each child’s growth over the nearly three years of filming provide the film’s more transcendent moments.

The children start out playing with toy machine guns and identifying missiles by the sounds they make, living with their father as he fights in the resistance. When he is captured by ISIS, the family make the difficult decision to leave Aleppo and start afresh in Germany. The elderly residents of a small town are dying off, and the German government offers them a house and subsidies to repopulate. As the children learn English, and begin to leave behind some of their traditions, they still play make believe as ISIS. (“Sit on the floor, and I’ll slaughter you.”)

Their mother struggles every day as her children thrive, and even the youngest ones can see the enormity of her sacrifice. By giving the children ample time on screen, the true cost of war can be seen through their eyes. While their new life is not perfect, hearing the oldest girl delight in the freedom she would not have had in Syria is as uplifting an ending this story has.

Grade: B+

“2017 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts” opens in theaters on Friday, February 10. 

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