BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Married at the respective ages of 95 and 96, Edith and Eddie Morrison are the oldest interracial couple. But their relationship comes under threat when Edith’s daughters battle for custody of their mother. They have been under the care of Edith’s loving daughter Rebecca, but if her other daughter Patricia wins custody Edith will be torn from Eddie and sent to Florida. To make matters worse, Edith accuses Patricia’s husband of abusing her, pushing her around and forcing her into washing windows.
You feel genuine love in every moment Edith and Eddie are together. You feel love in the opening scene of them dancing together in a country bar. You feel love when they sit in their church. You even feel their love when their putting on their dentures. The fact they fell in love after sharing a winning lottery ticket makes this seem like something out of a romantic comedy. After seeing their love, you can’t imagine them apart.
Knowing this makes it even more devastating when the court rules in favour of Patricia. It’s clear she cares more about Edith’s inheritance than her happiness. Edith and Eddie are forced in the custody of Estate Planning attorney Patricia Neisen. It’s clear Patricia doesn’t care about Edith’s well-being when she dismisses the claims of abuse with “sounds like someone’s been reading you Cinderella.” Eddie rightly chastises Jessica; warning her “you’re going to remember this till the day you die.”
This is a very heartbreaking short film that makes you worry about how you’ll be treated in your late years.
- HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405
Director Frank Stiefel showcases the life and internal struggles of Mindy Apler, a renowned artist who creates surreal imagery including an elephant-headed man talking in a cat phone. As she prepares her exhibit of paper Mache models of people both personal (her mother) and famous (John Lennon), Mindy talks about her struggles with mental illness, her troubled childhood and her passion for art.
Her life was a battle against her own neuroses. In one on one interviews, she talks of the many neuroses of her childhood, her difficult relationship with her father and her time in a mental institution. Though she has made progress, she still suffers from many neuroses. She has strange habits like calling her mother 2-3 times a day and mispronouncing basic words like “Hospital.” She must take over 10 pills a day to counter mental disorders. But her art gives her a constructive area to channel her neuroses.
She had some support to help her channel her troubled mind. The first is her close relationship with her mother, who saw her talents early on and took her to art classes. The second was Tom Uudl, an art teacher who helped her elevate her artwork. Finally, is her psychologist Shoshanna, who helped Mindy recover from her mental breakdown. She even helped Mindy relax before her exhibit opening. In returns, Mindy made a paper Mache of Shoshanna.
Her interviews reveal some interesting thoughts. The most notable is why she loves being in a traffic jam on the 405; “Just to sit there, no moving, watching the other cars.”
- HEROIN (E)
Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon brings us into the battlefield of the Opioid epidemic and introduces us to the heroines fighting it.
Huntington, West Virginia has become the Overdose Capital of the US with ten times the national average of overdoses. Ambulances drivers handle an average of 5-7 overdoses daily. Kids see about 30-40 dead bodies daily. Combine this with high unemployment and hopelessness and you have a dire situation.
But Through this hopeless situation, we meet three heroic women who take on this crisis in their own way. First is Jan Rader, Deputy Fire Chief/Ambulance Driver who drives across Huntington to revive OD victims. The second is Judge Patricia Keller of Drug Court, who pushes convicted Addicts on the road to recovery. The finally is Necia Freeman, a Minister who drives around town to help former addicts stay the course. We follow all three through the days in their lives as they try to help those in crisis.
Throughout this short documentary, Rader and Freeman address their concerns of the current crisis. Radar worries of the psychological effects the high death count’s doing to the local children. Freeman discusses a prostitute’s body found in a cornfield found out of town and how it upsets her to see her death ignored. We also meet former addicts, some who set themselves as examples of a way out.
Though we never get a one on one interview with Judge Keller, her segments are the most fascinating. Facing a wide variety of cases, Keller works more like a counsellor, offering guidance as she encourages the defendants to “focus, focus, focus on yourself.” You can’t help but smile when you see her excited about a defendant’s new business card. There are moments when she puts her foot down, especially when some defendants lie to their parole officers, but even then, she’s stern yet fair.
You can catch this documentary on Netflix.
- KNIFE SKILLS
In America’s Prison System, 650,000 inmates are released every year. With the odds stacked against them, 2/3s of these former inmates end up back in prison with the first three years. The first year is their greatest risk. In Cleveland, Ohio, former inmate turned chef Brandon Chrostowski offers former inmates a second chance in Edwin’s Restaurant. With two months until opening knife, Brandon and his Chef must train about 160 men and women in a variety of trades to run a first-class French Restaurant. Knife Skills brings us into those two months.
Most of them have no training in the kitchen. But over the course of six weeks, many of these men and women will have to learn up to memorize and cook 25 complicated dishes. Not only do they learn how to make Artichauts Barigoule and Pates Ditalini au fromage de Fontina, but they are taught French Culture and the origins of different recipes. They even take quizzes on recipes.
Through a variety of training, Director Thomas Lennon shows us the variety of trades that goes into running a first-class restaurant. Some learn how to test wine when they work at the bar. Some are taught managerial skills for the business aspect of the restaurant. One guy is even taught a variety of cheeses for the cheese tray.
We also get to know the trainees through their practices and in-depth interviews. After serving 4 years for Drug Trafficking and Robbery, Alan goes from going with a “knife as loose as I am” to learning 8 different knife cuts. After years feeling lonely and empty, Marley (drug possession and receiving stolen goods) finds herself feeling cared about for the first time in this restaurant. While learning to serve customers, Daudi (Aggravated Robbery) finds himself surprised by how polite he can be. They bear this souls through discussions of their struggles. Marley talks her heroin addiction, wishing she could sleep and never wake up. Alan talks of watching a friend die during a drug dispute. But the most heartbreaking is Brandon’s. Despite having a successful cooking career, he’s still filled with self-loathing, calling himself trash.
Tragically, many inmates don’t make it in the end. Some quit. Others revert to old habits and end up in prison. Sadly, some of them were the ones we met first hand. But many stick it out in the end to make this restaurant a success. In three years, the number of successful students grow.
- TRAFFIC STOP
On July 2015 in Austin, Texas, Breaion King was stopped by Officer Bryan Richter for a traffic violation. Within less than one minute, it escalates into violence with Richter slamming King into the ground. The dashcam has sparked debate of police treatment of people of colour. Now we get to know Breaion as a person in Traffic Stop, HBO’s documentary short.
So, who is Breaion King? For starters, she is an elementary school teacher who is the first of her generation to graduate. Having taught herself Algebra, Breaion sets her achievements as an example of how her students can achieve their goals no matter their background. This offers a hint of the philosophies she lives by. The most notable are lessons of self-respect and independent thinking, which would explain why she calls out Richter.
And now we discuss the video, which shows the cop slamming her to the ground just because she put her foot on the door. Sure, it was a bad move on her part to get out of the car and to stick her foot out, but that’s no excuse for Richter to slam her to the ground like a rag doll and then twisting her arm when he handcuffs her. Then he lies about her swinging at him, when the video proves otherwise. But the most horrifying moment is afterwards, when another cop gaslights Bearion by accusing black people of “violent tendencies.”
Who Will Win?
This category is a challenge to predict because there were so many good choices. Each one deserves to be awarded. But I’m going with Edith + Eddie because it’s one that will feel the most personal to audiences. Nearly everyone has fallen in love and almost everyone will grow old. It raises concern of how your children will treat you in your late years.
Though another film who stands a chance to winning is Heroin (e). I suspect Netflix will usurp HBO films as the go to winner for this category.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
- ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL
You’ve heard of “Too Big to Fail.” Well, here’s Small Enough to Jail. The earlier term referred to the massive corporations bailed out during the 2008 mortgage crisis. Only one financial institution was indicted; Abacus Federal Savings Bank. Not only is this nowhere near the biggest bank in America, but it’s not even in the top 2000. It’s also one of the few Chinese-American owned banks in the country.
From the director of beloved documentaries Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail brings us into the struggles of the family owned business as they are unfairly targeted by a system looking for an easy target. We bear witness to a crooked system that treats major corporations with kid gloves while throwing the little guy under the bus.
I haven’t been able to see this, but I feel this is very important to watch.
- FACES PLACES
Agnes Varda and J.R. couldn’t be more different. At age 86, Varda is a legendary filmmaker who paved the way for French New Wave alongside Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. J.R. is a young photography/artist who canvases giant photographs on walls and floors. Together, they travel across France in a camera car to photograph ordinary people and stick the photographs onto walls in Faces Places, a delightful, quirky documentary.
Throughout their trip, Agnes and J.R. stops over in mining towns, factories and farms. We meet plenty of fascinating rural people, from a goat’s milk farmer to hairdressers at Le Havre. The most fascinating is Jeanine, a woman who chooses to remain in an abandoned mining town. Through these people, we get a touch of history within these buildings.
In return for getting to know them, Agnes and J.R. photographs them and pastes the giant photographs on the walls. The result is many beautiful images including village locals eating a giant baguette across a cinderblock wall and the hairdressers on rows upon rows of boondock crates.
Just as beautiful is Agnes and J.R.’s friendship. These two are kindred spirits with similar quirky tastes. You just smile at moments of them sitting in the distance or racing across the Louvre.
What started as a documentary about doping in sports escalates into a political thriller when a doping conspiracy unfolds before our eyes.
After Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, amateur biker/documentary filmmaker Bryan Fogel is interested to see how easy it is to beat a doping test. So, he creates an experiment wherein he will take anti-aging pills and inject himself with testosterone for a year before he enters an intense seven-day Haute Route biking competition. Last year, he reached 14th place against 400 competitors. Can he do better? For that matter, can he beat a doping test?
That’s where Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov comes in to demonstrate how Fogel can beat the test. This brings up the questions, why is Dr. Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow’s Olympic lab agreeing to go through with this experiment? Something does seem a bit…off.
Then the documentary takes a U-turn when Russian track and field Olympians are busted for doping. As this scandal reveals a deeper conspiracy as more Olympians are found guilty of doping. Soon this turns into a real-life conspiracy thriller as Rodchenkov becomes a sacrificial lamb. Slowly, Rodchenkov starts to reveal the backhand dealings, revealing the elaborate plan that allowed the Russians to switch urine samples. With the KGB watching him and his friend suffering a mysterious death, Rodchenkov fears for his life. So, Brian works to help him escape.
Two tales seem to intersect. The first is Kid Icarus, the classic myth of the kid who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. The question is, who is Icarus? Is it Dr. Rodchenkov or the Olympians? The next story is George Orwell’s 1984, which bears more clear parallels. The film even begins with Orwell’s words “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” The deceit of Moscow’s Olympics goes as big as Putin himself and Dr. Rodchenkov is performing a revolutionary act.
You can catch this documentary on Netflix.
- LAST MEN IN ALEPPO
After winning the best Documentary Short Oscar with The White Helmets, Netflix returns to Syria in Last Men in Aleppo, a feature length version of the documentary short. We find ourselves back in Aleppo, where citizens are still at the mercy of either ISIS attacks or Russian bombings. Still, the White Helmets continue to pull people out of debris.
Despite having different directors, Last Men in Aleppo is very similar to The White Helmets. They even have similar people like Abu Omar and Mahmoud. To be honest, this documentary doesn’t offer much new for the audience that hasn’t been told in the previous documentary. You get some history about the crisis in the country and more time to get to know the people who put their lives at risk. But beyond a White Helmet headquarters being bombed, not much happened that’s already happened in the previous documentary.
If I hadn’t seen the White Helmets, I probably would have liked the film more. But that documentary hinders any immersion into this documentary because you keep seeing similarities.
- STRONG ISLAND
On April 7, 1992, 24-year-old teacher William Ford Jr. went to Super Stang Auto Body to get his girlfriend’s car back. This trip would end up with him shot dead by mechanic Mark Reilly. Another unarmed black man shot dead by a white man. As always, the killer was acquitted by an all-white jury. After a decade of injustice, her little brother Yance Ford decides to he’s not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was. So, he decides to tell the world who he is with Strong Island.
Yance brings us back to the time his parents first married. We learn of his mother becoming a teacher and setting up a school for girls and women. We also learn of little personal moments in their lives, like watching Green Hornet and Adam West Batman. Yance also talks about discovering his sexuality and gender identity when he was still a girl. Through his change, William was there to support him.
When we get to the murder, Yance brings us into the systemic racism they dealt with during the investigation. The mother recalled the cops interview; “I don’t feel we were received as parents of victim,” asking questions of his background and his strength. She recalled looking at the grand Jury and “seeing no one like me.” It doesn’t help when the process of selecting a Grand Jury is so vague even former Assistant DA David Breen admits “it’s a mystery and it shouldn’t be.” In the end, Reilly was acquitted for self-defense. It’s moments like this that makes Black American not trust the justice system.
But then Yance makes a confession that makes things more complicated. Before that fateful night, William called Yance and admitted he had a quarrel with Reilly wherein he threatened to crush the mechanic with a car door. Suddenly, there’s more merit to Reilly claiming self-defense. But this gets deeper. Yance feels guilty because he didn’t tell his parents, who would have discouraged him. But with that phone call, he felt like William was talking to the real him, which made him enjoy “my brother the hero.” You can understand why this thought would occur to him, but there’s never any guarantee our actions would have prevented tragedy.
When I review documentaries, I examine content over style. It makes sense, since documentary filmmakers focus way more on the story than their style. But Yance provides some interesting imagery that stands out. Every time he or a family member talks about earlier moments of their lives, he will slide an old photo onto the screen. When his mother talks of mourning Williams, Yance cuts to a dark bedroom, then turns it on to reveal its emptiness. He makes some amateur mistakes like randomly fading in and out of black during interviews with the same person, but at least he’s bringing some creativity to the genre.
Who Will Win?
The favourite this year is Faces Places. First, this award usually goes to the most popular film in the category, with few exceptions of course. Plus, it has the advantage of being co-directed by a film legend. Plus, it celebrates ordinary folks through the artwork within the film.
In terms of importance, it’s hard to say since the other films delve into topics relevant of today.
 By the way, kudos to Yance for being the first transgender person to be nominated in this category.