With a dedicated awards operation and a seemingly infinite budget, Netflix has moved from Oscars dark horse to one to beat in just a few short years. After scoring its first Best Picture contender with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” in 2019, the streamer now has the clear frontrunner in Jane Campion’s nomination leader “The Power of The Dog.” With more modest budgets and an international bent, the short form categories have historically presented a wider spread of indies to studio-produced fare. That is, until Netflix got into the fray.
Netflix produced three of the five documentary shorts nominees this year — “Audible,” “Lead Me Home,” and “Three Songs for Benazir — its most in any short film category. All five contenders run the gamut in both style and substance. There’s a feel-good story about a pioneering woman basketball player, and a personal experimental film following the director’s probing of a childhood bullying incident. There’s also a sweeping portrait of the homelessness crisis in three major U.S. cities, a rare drama about a deaf high school football team and its star player, and a simple but mighty look at life inside an Afghani refugee camp. Here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
Like last year’s “Sound of Metal” and this year’s “CODA,” recent films about the deaf community have used the power of image and sound to offer viewers a rare glimpse into someone else’s perspective. This emotional coming-of-age drama immerses the viewer in the daily grind of a high school football team at Maryland School for the Deaf. Led by team captain Amaree, the football team is undefeated until the film’s tense opening scene. The 37-minute short follows Amaree throughout his senior year, capturing his awkward burgeoning romance, a sweet friendship with gay cheerleader Jalen, and his gradual reconnection with his estranged father. Amaree’s heated locker room pep talks unfold in fast-paced sign language, and the teammates hype themselves up with rhythmic stomping and banging.
There are stark reminders of the world that awaits Amaree and Jalen, such as the tragic story of their friend Teddy, who succumbed to suicidal ideation after switching to a hearing school. The film ends with a somber warning from Amaree’s coach, who knows what the bumpy transition holds. It’s a grim portrait that could have used a bit more joy, and the reserved Amaree is a bit stiff as a subject, especially compared to colorful Jalen. But it’s a well-crafted portrait of a hidden world, and a key tool to understanding differences.
As the only true indie in contention, there’s a lot to admire about this plucky experiment. San Francisco–based filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt takes a central role in his quirky self-exploratory film, which sees him recounting a childhood bullying incident that has stuck with him for 50 years. Using the filmmaker’s signature scrappy cut-out collage style, Rosenblatt animates his fifth grade classmates from a black-and-white class photo. In an effort to remember this one fateful day, he contacts almost everyone from his Brooklyn elementary school class. As they each offer their own memories of the bullied boy in question (known only by his unfortunate first name — Dick), the older voices speak behind their bopping school portraits in an amusing juxtaposition.
The film takes an interesting turn when he tracks down his fifth grade teacher Mrs. Bromberg, now 92 and residing in a senior living facility in the Bronx. Though she offers few answers, she rather stoically reveals one profound way bullying affected her life. Just like the schoolyard incident, Mrs. Bromberg loomed large in Rosenblatt’s head. She turns out to be a pretty adorable old lady, though she doesn’t mince words. She says his film “could be tedious to watch,” proving herself wrong by her presence.
Lusia “Lucie” Harris lets out a bubbling chuckle after almost every sentence, where some less cheerful soul might clear their throat or grunt. She delivers the story of her life with little fanfare and often in the third person, the camera affectionately close on her glowing face, which emanates warmth. Though it’s much more interesting to hear her tell it, her parents were Mississippi sharecroppers, and she and her 10 siblings picked cotton after school. At six feet, two inches tall, she always got teased for her height. That is, until she started playing basketball. She played on the boys’ team in high school just after Title IX passed, and went on to lead Delta State University to three consecutive national titles. She represented the U.S. at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, leading the team to a silver medal.
A nominee in the category last year, Ben Proudfoot lets Harris speak for herself, letting her natural Southern charisma do most of the work. Archival footage does the rest; The New York Times Op-Docs team unearthed many of Harris’ collegiate and Olympic games. Though Harris became the first woman officially drafted to the NBA, she chose not to try out, fearing she wouldn’t measure up. Though she has no regrets, it’s impossible not to feel angry on her behalf when she says, “I wanted to keep playing. But there was no place to go. There was no WNBA at the time.” The film takes an even more poignant turn when she reveals her struggle with bipolar disorder, which came on after she stopped playing basketball.
Exuberant, proud, and reflective, Harris is a dream documentary subject. It’s wrenching that more of her dreams couldn’t come true.
Both grand in scale and filled with specific compelling characters, this 40-minute portrait takes a holistic approach to the homelessness crisis in America. The film was shot in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, three cities that are very familiar with the scope of the crisis. Though it’s too easy to look away, it’s impossible to fully ignore the countless encampments scattered across these cities, which are attractive for their mild weather and relatively progressive policies. The film uses the format of an intake interview, a standard procedure at various shelters, to put human stories behind the tired faces.
By zeroing in on a few varied stories, even in a short time we feel connected to the unhoused people and their hopes, heartbreaks, and humanity. Their daily indignities stand in stark contrast to deliberate editing. These swinging cranes and shiny glass towers loom large; their sharp lines and metallic hues pop rigidly against the vulnerable faces of the people we’ve come to know and care for.
Cinematic and intimate at the same time, this deeply arresting film daily life inside an Afghani refugee camp. A refreshing divergence from the images piped out by traditional Western media, the film follows a charismatic young dreamer named Shaista, a total character who loves to sing for his wife Benazir. Shaista dreams of joining the army, though no one from his camp has ever done so. He yearns to make something of himself, to get away from harvesting opium, and to provide for his growing family. The film offers a rare slice-of-life glimpse into this difficult situation, showing how benign everyday tasks can begin to feel. Whether he’s building bricks or arguing with his elders, Shaista’s humanity burns bright across the screen.
Shot by married filmmakers Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei over the course of four years, the couple draw on their own experiences living in Afghanistan to render their subject with admiration and agency. As an Afghani, Gulistan wanted to show the outside world a more accurate depiction of life in his home, one less plastered with violence and tragedy. Though Shaista and Benazir share unimaginable struggles, they still sing, flirt, and laugh together. It’ll take more than a film to fix the ongoing crisis, but “Three Songs for Benazir” is a gorgeous and monumental start.