Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar short docs: art blooms from adversity

The problem I have with this year’s list of Oscar nominated short documentaries is the same I have with the short live action nominations – they’re pretty much all-too-serious and kind of downers to boot. And why, pray tell, are they all from the US?…..First up is Edith & Eddie (Laura Checkoway, USA, 29 mins), a film about an unlikely pair of ninety-something newlyweds, who get along blissfully as if they were spring chickens. Until, that is, family members intervene, and supposedly for the good of the couple’s psychic and physical health, separate them by moving Edith, her protests notwithstanding, hundreds of miles away, never to see her husband again. The story is heartfelt, disturbing and tragic …... Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, USA, 40 mins; pictured) is my pick for best film. And only because of its revelation of a scarcely known but absolutely outstanding artist, Mindy Alper. Working in an array of media, Alper’s sculptures amazingly capture the complex personalities of her subjects. Yet there is a downside to the movie: Alper’s lifelong battle with mental illness. There are times viewers may wonder whether they should be celebrating the woman’s artistic brilliance or crying over her tormented background …... Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, USA, 39 mins) is a peek into the city of Huntington, West Virginia, which happens to have the highest rate of drug overdoses in the US. The film depicts three people who are trying to break the pattern – the fire chief (Jan Rader), Patricia Keller (the drug court judge) and Necia Freeman, who brings meals to female addicts. Each is tough, committed, and especially in Judge Keller’s court, brings innovative solutions to curb the opioid epidemic in a deindustrialized Appalachian town …... Knife Skills (Thomas Lennon, USA, 40 mins) is another film that looks at the underside of society, in this case Ohio ex-convicts employed by the owner of an upscale Cleveland French restaurant, to be retrained in culinary arts. Most but not all find themselves rather transformed by their new careers, providing not just fulfillment but a sense of creativity. Restaurant owner Brandon Chrostowski himself is no stranger to having a long ago run-in with the law. ….. Traffic Stop (Kate Davis, USA, 31 mins) juxtaposes the serene, smart educator Breaion King, a dedicated professional in her classroom, with videotape of a police stop of her for speeding in Austin, Tx, in which the police wrestle King to the ground and arrest her. (She’s suing one officer.) The film obviously references the numerous controversial police arrests and real or alleged violence perpetuated by officers against black people, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the dash cam video, while King is mildly uncooperative with police, there's no reason for the officer’s excessive force. But it also seems difficult to prove a racist motive: this could have happened to anyone regardless of skin color. However, there are a couple of moments when an officer’s squad car comments about the black community do have racist overtures.

(Oscar-nominated short documentary films will be screened again this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

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