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

Three of the five nominated films put a human face to the Syrian refugee crisis.

White Helmets

“The White Helmets”


Of the five films Oscar-nominated for Documentary Short Subject, three address the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis: “4.1 Miles,” a New York Times Op-Doc about a Greek Coast Guard Captain and the boatloads of refugees he rescues daily; “Watani: My Homeland,” about one family’s migration from front-line Aleppo to a small town in Germany; and “The White Helmets,” Netflix’s portrait of the volunteer first responders in Aleppo, from the director/producer team behind the 2015 Oscar-nominated feature documentary, “Virunga.”

READ MORE: Oscars 2017 Live-Action Shorts: Jane Birkin vs. Six-Time Nominee Kim Magnusson

The other two films also skew serious, but tell more intimate stories. “Joe’s Violin” is the touching story of the unlikely friendship between a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and the 12-year-old girl from the Bronx who receives his beloved violin after he donates it. “Extremis” follows a palliative care doctor as she walks her patients and their loved ones though difficult end of life decisions.

With its seasoned team and political relevance, “The White Helmets” is the clear frontrunner. However, a win for “Joe’s Violin,” with its intergenerational, interracial friendship, would also send a message, albeit a more subtle one.


Rather than getting caught up in the legal issues of physician-assisted suicide, director Dan Krauss tackles the difficult subject of end-of-life care more intimately. “Extremis” is a 23-minute portrait of one palliative care doctor guiding her patients and their family members through decisions about how best to die. “We’re all gonna die … and it’s good to have a little bit of a say in how,” says Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter in the short, which is available on Netflix.

An accomplished documentary feature cinematographer, this is Krauss’ second Oscar nomination. “The Death of Kevin Carter,” about the suicide of a South African photo journalist, was nominated in this category in 2006. “One thing I focused on a lot in the way that I captured these scenes was finding the line between intimacy and intrusiveness,” Krauss told The Moveable Feast about “Extremis.” A timely topic handled sensitively could certainly strike a nerve with older-skewing Oscar voters, who have likely dealt with a dying parent.

“4.1 Miles”

An unofficial companion to Gianfranco Rossi’s “Fire at Sea,” which is nominated for Best Documentary Feature, “4.1 Miles” is a shocking look inside the Syrian refugee crisis. As thousands flee their homes in the Middle East, coast guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos finds himself caught in the struggle. Despite limited resources, he and his crew attempt to save lives during the immense humanitarian crisis as refugees travel from the coast of Turkey to the island of Lesbos. “Life used to be under control, it was very calm,” says Papadopoulos. “Now we have to function like doctors, and we’re not doctors.”

This is the first Oscar nomination for journalist and filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki, who was born in Athens, Greece. It was produced by the New York Times as part of the paper’s growing Op-Docs section. As the “Fire at Sea” nomination attests, Academy voters are interested in this topic, and eager to take a stance.

“Joe’s Violin”

A Holocaust survivor and a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx strike up an unlikely friendship through a shared love of music in this elegant tearjerker. 91-year-old Joseph Feingold has played his violin for over 70 years when he donates it to a school instrument drive. It winds up in the expert care of Brianna Perez, a student at Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. “That violin has so many secrets that nobody knows,” she tells her friends on the schoolyard. “To me this is like an adventure. I always wanted an adventure.”

Directed by Kahane Cooperman, a producer of “The Daily Show” for nearly two decades, and produced by DOC NYC Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen (with Kickstarter’s help), “Joe’s Violin” has the pedigree to go all the way. It’s also the kind of unbelievable human story with unspoken connections to broader political issues that often make the best documentaries.

“Watani: My Homeland”

Filmed over three years, director Marcel Mettelsiefen made over 25 trips to Syria to film one family on their epic journey from war-torn Aleppo to their attempt to make a new life in Germany. Four young children live with their mother and father, a commander with the Free Syrian Army, on the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo. They are the only family left in their former busy residential neighborhood when their father is captured by ISIS, and the children must flee with their mother to a small, medieval town in Germany. They arrive to a different kind of struggle in adapting to a new life, holding on to hope, and the idea of belonging to a homeland.

A former doctor turned photojournalist, Berlin-based Mettelsiefen has directed two features on the Syrian Civil War for PBS: “Syria: Children on the Frontline,” and “Children on the Frontline: The Escape.” Speaking to PBS, the director said: “Children in a war zone are so vulnerable, but I also saw such an incredible degree of resilience, and I wanted to and I decided I wanted to tell the stories of Syrian kids caught in this crisis in a really thoughtful, long-form way.” This is his first Oscar nomination, with producer Stephen Ellis.

“The White Helmets”

“In the White Helmets we have a motto: To save a life is to save all of humanity,” says one of the subjects of “The White Helmets,” the 41-minute documentary about the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as the White Helmets. They are a group of civilians who rush in after a bombing to try and save survivors in the rubble. The short, available on Netflix, recently made headlines because the group’s leader, featured in the film, won’t be able to attend the ceremony due to the travel ban.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara were both nominated for their 2015 documentary feature, “Virunga.” Though this film was originally intended to be a feature, as the situation escalated they felt it was more important to get it out as quickly as possible. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, von Einsiedel said: “It’s easy in our world at the moment to get depressed at its current situation and to lose faith in the future. So when we find stories like the White Helmets, that remind us that there is hope.”

The Academy Awards ceremony will take place on February 26th, 2017.

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