In the abysmal landscape of short film distribution, documentaries have had the easiest time translating to streaming and internet consumption. Often overlapping with hard-hitting video journalism, documentary shorts appeal to establishment news outlets like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and both outlets have funded numerous short documentaries over the last decade.
In its effort to earn industry clout by wracking up Oscar nominations, Netflix joined the fray, and its two nominations for Best Documentary Short this year are by far the most accessible.
This year’s nominees lean far lighter than in most years, which is somewhat surprising seeing as the terrible news just keeps piling up. Perhaps voters needed a little levity this year, or perhaps filmmakers themselves are seeking out more uplifting stories.
From saving baby elephants in India to a shocking tale of a changed perspective, the films in this category offer more than a glimmer of hope for humanity. Although it may be willfully naive, it certainly makes the viewing more pleasurable.
Most of the films are currently available online, and all are worth seeking out. Here’s our ranking of all five contenders.
5. “The Martha Mitchell Effect”
The most notoriously outspoken lady of the 1970s, Martha Mitchell made political spousing a blood sport — and paid the price. The wife of Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon himself blamed her for Watergate. With a sharp wit and a loose tongue, she intuited the power of the press long before doing so became a political necessity, brandishing the mic to shift public opinion.
Her rise and eventual downfall gets comprehensive coverage in Anne Albergue’s “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” though it doesn’t reveal much more than the excellent podcast “Slow Burn: Watergate.” Mitchell herself is a compelling enough subject, and it’s nice to see her considerable style and charisma in the archival footage. The filmmaking itself is fairly straightforward, however, and the quite dramatic story of Mitchell’s forcible silencing somehow falls flat.
4. “The Elephant Whisperers”
To someone who is skeptical about the appeal of short film, there’s no easier sell than a feel-good story about a couple who fall in love while raising orphaned baby elephants. Set in the Mudumalai National Park in South India, first-time filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves spent five years following indigenous couple Bomman and Belli as they rehabilitate two orphaned baby elephants.
Making use of many drone shots to capture the grand scale and lush greenery, the film looks as slick as any high-budget nature documentary. The subjects are personable and genuine, as they speak openly about how they see the elephants as their children. Mercifully, nothing horrible happens, making it a safe watch for kids and a welcome reprieve for news-addled adults.
3. “Stranger at the Gate”
The New Yorker
Certain documentaries, such as 2007’s bombshell “Crazy Love,” are best viewed with no prior knowledge. Joshua Seftel’s powerful portrait of an ex-Marine unmoored and radicalized by untreated PTSD utilizes a similar technique, setting up one story and delivering quite another.
Seftel shoots the film’s brawny subject, Mac McKinney, in a sleeveless gray beater at a sterile location that could pass for a prison, priming the viewer for the worst. McKinney is scarily candid about the way he was taught to dehumanize his targets during wartime, and the hate he harbored when he returned home. Though visually unremarkable, “Stranger at the Gate” is a startling firsthand account of violence calcifying into hate, and the power of a little humanity to transform it. It reads a little too optimistic for the current moment, but it serves as vital proof that change is possible.
2. “How Do You Measure a Year?”
Back in the category for the second year in a row, scrappy micro-budget filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt impresses with another personal and experimental charmer. Taking a page from Michael Apted’s “Up” series, Rosenblatt interviewed his daughter Ella on her birthday every year from the ages of two to 18. It’s a satisfying gimmick that pays off, though the filmmaker remains mostly opaque safely behind the camera. His goal is to ask her the same questions every year, which can yield predictably funny results, such as three-year-old Ella’s response about the meaning of power.
Rosenblatt’s artistic goal feels somewhat nebulous: Is it about watching someone form their identity, a father/daughter relationship, or the importance of creativity and ritual? Rosenblatt doesn’t seem to know himself, as Ella’s questions over the years about why they’re doing this go mostly unanswered, but his jumping into the artistic unknown is certainly admirable. The result is a little bit jumbled, though it’s undeniably compelling to watch Ella transition from adorable baby to surly adolescent to mature teen. “I’m really grateful we do this,” an older and wiser Ella says, offering her own conclusion. “I love ritual, I love traditions, and this one’s really nice.”
The New Yorker
The most stunning film of the group is as impressive in its filming as in the dedication of the subject himself. Shot in a remote region of Eastern Russia by brother/sister duo Maxim and Evgenia Arbugaeva, “Haulout” follows the cold and lonely efforts of Russian marine biologist Maxim Chakilev to track a walrus colony. The filmmakers spent three months with Chakilev, living in a tiny seaside shack on a gray stretch of beach that is a popular rest stop for the migrating mammals.
As temperatures rise and ice melts, upwards of 90,000 walruses crowd the shore, where they are susceptible to sickness and stampedes. Gorgeous cinematography captures the awesome scale of the dilemma, and Chakilev’s wind-hardened face translates the anxiety and concern he feels for the massive bellowing creatures. With very few words, the film communicates a monumentally poignant picture of the effects of climate change.
The 2023 Oscar-nominated short films will be available in select theaters on Friday, February 17. Find participating theaters here.
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