Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Oscar short docs: more messages, unfortunately

And now we move on to the 2019 Oscar nominated documentary shorts (at Detroit Film Theatre) which, like the last two year’s offerings, unfortunately, provide a general down note to the viewer experience. I continue to wonder if today’s filmmakers know how to make a documentary about anything other than politics or something with a “message.” So, okay, let’s go. First up is Black Sheep (UK, Ed Perkins), which actually is a poignant recreation of 30-something Cornelius Walker’s experience growing up in an England housing project. He was one of the few black kids in the Essex neighborhood and paid for it, being beaten up on his arrival. In order to fit in he joins the gang and ironically perpetuates the same kind of racist violence. “I felt guilty but I felt accepted,” he says looking back. Next film nominee is End Game (USA, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), an intimate – some might think voyeuristically uncomfortable – look at several patients in a San Francisco hospice. One of the palliative care doctors, who himself had a near death experience, tries to ease the patients’ fears by using techniques such as to “make friends with death.” But even politics intrudes here, as the camera captures one patient, asked what day it is and who the president is, will not admit President Trump’s name and opts for “Obama.” A Night at the Garden (USA, Marshall Curry), the third entry, is the best of the bunch and stunning, and there’s nothing new or particularly creative about it. All it is, is a splicing of original newsreel film and soundtrack – which overwhelmingly speaks for itself - from 1939 when a giant rally was held at Madison Square Garden. The American Nazi party drew thousands to a pro-USA event complete with Nazi salutes and the regurgitation of US constitutional principles like "liberty." There’s even a giant image of George Washington. The event is weird and awful in all the seven minutes depicted. Lifeboat (USA, Skye Fitzgerald), is another film (the short doc, 4.1 Miles, by Greek director Daphne Matziaraki was nominated in 2017 but didn’t win) about rescuing Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean in ramshackle vessels, and their rescue by non-profit groups, in this case Sea Watch. Searing photos of the destitute, though most seem able-bodied young men, are shown. And the now deceased rescue captain Jon Castle has some thoughtful words about refugees and survival, as in the closer you get to real people the less they're political abstractions - “you start thinking with your heart instead of your head.” Finally, Period. End of Sentence (USA, Rayka Zehtabchi) is set in a rural area of India not far from Delhi that seems lost in time, where men - and women - are exceedingly ignorant of sexuality and women’s menstrual cycles. “Menstruation is the biggest taboo in the country,” we’re told, with women often having to use dirty rags. A group of them are introduced to a machine that will make proper sanitary pads. Not only are these pads more absorbent than a few others on the market but the women become modest entrepreneurs going village to village selling them. Fascinating and eye-opening.

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