Review: Oscar-nominated documentary shorts (…that I actually saw…)

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Review: Oscar-nominated documentary shorts (…that I actually saw…)

I figured I’d sneak in one last post for the 2017 Oscars. Last year I saw all the nominated documentary shorts, which was a first for me. Normally the documentary categories are when I get up to use the restroom or grab a snack, but last year I actually cared who won. So I figured I’d do the same this year.

I was mostly successful. This year’s nominations were on the depressing side, but well-made, timely, and I think very important, especially considering the current political environment.

One of them I didn’t watch. Because reasons. (But maybe not the reasons you’d think.)

The White Helmets

The film looks at the bombing in Syria (specifically Aleppo) from the point of view of the White Helmets, a group of people who go in and save who they can after an air strike. At one point over 200 air strikes were recorded in one day, each one destroying a neighborhood. It puts faces on what we’ve been hearing about, not of the dead, but the people who work to save whoever they can.

We’ve seen a reports of the violence and destruction in Aleppo, but it’s amazing to see it from the point of view of people who are trying to help. I wish I spoke the language so I’d know how accurate the subtitles are, but it broke my heart in a lot of places.

Currently streaming on Netflix.


Extremis offers a look at the end-of-life decisions made in one hospital. We see the dying, their families, and the doctors and nurses who can’t tell you what to do, but they do what they can to help you make that decision.

I think the film is interesting, well-made, and even-handed, but definitely weighted towards the opinion of the filmmakers, which is that prolonging suffering (or prolonging life if brain-death is apparent) is to be avoided. I completely agree with that opinion but I’m also not the one who’s had to make that decision. If I was faced with that choice, I might think differently.

Props to the families who agreed to be filmed, on what was most likely the worst day of their lives.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

4.1 Miles

The filmmakers spent one day filming a Greek coast guard captain as he rescued refugees in the water from Turkey. Smugglers take the refugees’ money and put them on flimsy boats in terrible conditions, and they don’t care what happens to anyone as soon as they have their money. The Greek coast guard on the island of Lesbos has seen over 600,000 refugees come to that one small island in a year. And the coast guard who rescues them isn’t seen as heroes because for one, so few people are truly aware of the staggering numbers, but also because the resentment towards the refugees builds by the day.

We hear a lot about refugees, but we don’t always understand what that looks like, or why they are in a situation where they’d need to be rescued. If you want a human face to put on them and the people who save them, this will give it to you.

Currently streaming on Vimeo.

Joe’s Violin

With the country being a little at odds with itself about immigrants, black lives, and supporting the arts, this is a lovely little film to watch. It’s the story of Joe, born in Warsaw just before World War 2, and what happened to his family. It’s also about the violin he bought for a pack of cigarettes, that he loved dearly but no longer plays, so he donated it to a program in New York that places instruments in schools that need them. And its about the student who got his violin, and why it’s important to both of them.

This is not a dramatic film with a twist and an obvious message. It’s very short, and sweet, and if you love music for its own sake you’ll like this.

Currently streaming on

And then there’s the film I didn’t watch, but not because I didn’t want to….

Watani: My Homeland

According to imdb, this film is “the story of one family’s fight and struggle to survive the Syrian Civil War. Having lost her husband, the mother makes the heart achingly painful decision to leave her homeland, in search of safety and a brighter future for her children.”

I want to see this film, and not just because it’d check off all the boxes in this one category. I think it’s an important subject, one that just about everybody in this country needs to watch so we can better understand what’s going on in the world.

I couldn’t watch it, because it’s just isn’t frigging available. Not on amazon, screeningroom, netflix, hulu, or any other streaming service I could find. It hasn’t been playing anywhere in San Diego for the last month, and the official website doesn’t list it anywhere nearby either. (And hey, if I’m wrong, please let me know, I’d actually love to be wrong because I’d love to see it.)

I’m trying not to take it personally. It’s an important film, whether or not I managed to see it. What do the filmmaker’s care that a reviewer at a small website thinks? I play no part in the voting process.

But the average American thinks so little of the documentary films, wouldn’t it be better to put such movies in front of people? If you want to change minds, can’t you find a way to make it widely available? (Maybe not, maybe there’s licensing issues involved, distribution complications, all that.)

That’s my professional response. My unprofessional response is: if you want me to care about your movie you need to let me see it.

My prediction

Out of the four I watched, I felt The White Helmets was the best made, most powerful, and most interesting. (I’m partial to Joe’s Violin since I play one, but it felt a little on the meandering side, and lacked the punch of The White Helmets.) For all I know, though, Watani will win it, because I hear it’s brilliant. Can’t comment on that though. Obviously.

EDIT: The Oscar goes to The White Helmets!

Want to read more 2017 Oscar reviews? Head here!