With the growing overlap between journalism and non-fiction filmmaking, documentary shorts have become an increasingly powerful showcase for critical real-world stories. Easily accessible and shareable online, non-fiction filmmaking has a greater potential to have a far-reaching impact than ever before. More filmmakers are drawn to the genre, which has only improved the quality, subject matter, and level of artistic risk-taking.
The five contenders for Best Documentary Short tackle devastating humanitarian crises, urgent political movements, and deep-rooted social justice causes. Two of the year’s contenders hail from up-and-coming Black filmmakers, who address vastly different facets of racial inequality in ways both lyrical and profound. Another film has provoked the Chinese government to ban the Oscars broadcast from the country, proving the undeniable power of the medium. Here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
5. “Hunger Ward” (Skye Fitzgerald)
Certain tragedies cannot be ignored, even if they feel impossible to look at. Two-time Oscar-nominated director Skye Fitzgerald completes his Humanitarian Trilogy with a wrenching look inside the crisis of childhood famine in Yemen. The film follows two women — a doctor and a nurse — running the war torn country’s hunger wards, as they treat patient after patient displaying horrifying symptoms of malnutrition. We see a six-year-old girl come in weighing 15 pounds; and watch an infant die as her grandmother screams and curses the doctor. We learn that many children in Yemen have developed an allergy to gluten as a result of the wheat-heavy provisions sent by aid organizations. It’s an important story, but excruciating to watch. What’s just as hard to stomach is a lurking unease with the camera’s intrusion on the suffering families — and children.
4. “Colette” (Anthony Giacchino)
Old people and the Holocaust are a surefire way to win Oscar votes, making “Colette” a potential shoe-in. Named for the 90-year-old former French resistance fighter, “Colette” follows Colette Catherine as she visits the Nazi concentration camp where her brother perished after vowing never to set foot in Germany. An elderly French lady who speaks to pigeons and speaks her mind, Colette cuts a compelling character study. When the former mayor of the small German town attempts a speech about German guilt, she cuts him off resolutely; when asked if she was close to her brother, she answers no. Colette is joined by a young PhD student on the visit, and a sweet inter-generational friendship is forged through shared tears. On the importance of remembering the atrocities lest history repeat itself, Colette says flatly: “It took me a long time to forget.”
3. “A Concerto Is a Conversation” (Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers)
Packing a sweet emotional punch in the shortest running time of the group, this tender familial history is framed as a conversation between the filmmaker, composer Kris Bowers, and his grandfather, Horace Bowers (referred to in the film simply as “Grandaddy”). The film was produced by Ava DuVernay and released by The New York Times Op-Docs, which has become a heavy hitter in this category over the last several years. As Kris prepares for the debut of a new composition, Horace shares his journey from Jim Crow-era Florida to Los Angeles, where he started a dry-cleaning business by applying for loans by mail.
They face the camera in close-up, a somewhat puzzling choice that has the effect of disconnecting the two men, but it emphasizes a sense of mirror images reaching across time. While brevity is always effective, Bowers rushes through his journey from piano lessons to Juilliard to Emmy-winning composer, perhaps out of a sense of deference to his grandfather’s story. The warmth and charm radiates between the two so well that they could have easily have spent a little more time together.
2. “Do Not Split” (Anders Hammer)
Produced by Field of Vision, the agit-prop non-fiction film company co-founded by “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook, this riveting 36-minute documentary puts viewers on the front lines of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. The film captures the demonstrations with terrifying immediacy, from the movement’s beginnings in 2019 through the developments of 2020. It’s impossible to look away as protestors face beatings, surveillance, and arrests for exercising the right to assembly and free speech. From its opening with a small group setting fire to a bank, to a tense moment of hiding out on a roof as helicopters hover overhead, “Do Not Split” chronicles this historic moment in heart-pounding close-up. It’s no wonder the film’s nomination has Beijing on high alert.
1. “A Love Song for Latasha” (Sophia Nahli Allison)
“A Love Song For Latasha” delivers on the promise of its title: This arresting documentary short is an evocative celebration of the life of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl from South Central Los Angeles whose 1991 shooting death became a flashpoint in the LA uprisings. While the Black community that mourns her to this day won’t soon forget the grainy footage of her death, which circulated widely on news stations at the time, the footage is nowhere to be seen in “A Love Song for Latasha.” On the contrary, the 19-minute film is bursting with sun-kissed sidewalks and faded basketball courts, clean line animation and radiant Black girls posed gracefully, like young queens.
Filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison was adamant about not using the shooting footage, and set about re-creating Latasha’s world through a cinematic lens. With no archival footage of Latasha, she filmed local girls from the neighborhood doing things Latasha might have done: shooting hoops and wandering yellow fields. The film imbues South Central — and Latasha’s memory — with a dreamy magical realism, reframing and liberating her story from the cold immutability of a tragic headline.