Now it’s time for reviews of the Oscar nominated documentary shorts, being shown for public viewing this weekend and next at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). Let’s say right off the bat that someone could be excused for thinking there was a definite political or “message” being sent with this crop of nominees. There are five films altogether, three of which deal with the Middle Eastern migrant crisis. Each of course has merits as does the issue generally. But with the vast array of documentary selections to choose from, when does Hollywood stop being political and start showing movies for movies sake?
Joe’s Violin (USA – Kahane Cooperman) This is a story about a violin that has been the possession of a World War II Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, and how he came to own it (in exchange for a pack of cigarettes) in a displaced refugee camp. Now in his Nineties, Feingeld decided to donate the instrument to a public school musical arts class in the Bronx. We witness how one of its young students embraces the violin, and how happy she is to meet the donor. It’s a sweet story with some flashback poignancy, but doesn’t rise beyond a straightforward narrative.
Extremis (USA – Dan Krauss) This is film which may be difficult to watch, as it deals with two patients in an intensive care unit in an Oakland, California hospital. It’s an up-close portrayal of medical staff – one doctor in particular – as they assist the patients and their families in end of life care. The film is a sensitive depiction of the interaction among staff, the patients, and patients’ loved ones, but again, is solely a straightforward narrative.
4.1 Miles (USA/Greece – Daphne Matziaraki). This is the first of the migrant crisis films and follows the crew of a small Greek Coast Guard boat off the coast of the island of Lesbos, as it tries to save refugees on flimsy boats crossing the short distance from Turkey. For those who have just scanned the headlines or caught video clips of this humanitarian disaster, the film is an upfront, searing portrayal of the human aspect of this “issue.”
Watani: My Homeland (UK – Marcel Mettelsiefen) A family in the middle, of a warring neighbourhood in the Syrian city of Aleppo tries to survive amidst the daily shelling. When the father, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army, is captured by ISIS, the mother and her four children seek refugee asylum in Germany. The film follows their travels and new life in Europe. Again, as with 4.1 Miles, the close-up of the human impact of war is heart wrenching.
The White Helmets (USA – Orlando von Einsiedel) (photo above) This film is about a group of Syrian emergency workers who rescue people who may be trapped after a bombing during the current Syrian civil war. The group puts their lives in extreme danger – indeed, dozens have bene killed – as they climb through rubble and try to extricate victims. Like Watani: My Homeland, the filmmaker is present among the rescuers capturing scenes that show what, on a human level, is going on behind the headlines.
What film should win the Oscar: The White Helmets; what will win: The White Helmets.