OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS — 3 stars — not rated; Tower
SALT LAKE CITY — Out of last year's documentary shorts vying for an Oscar, it was “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405” — a thoughtful doc about a middle-aged artist channeling her depression and anxiety into impressive paper-mache sculptures — that emerged victorious.
Like last year, the documentary shorts up for an Academy Award this year don't shy away from tough subjects. The themes this time around cover a variety of contemporary issues — including immigration and palliative health care — and clocks in at more than a 2½-hour running time.
The Salt Lake Film Society is showing this year's compelling documentary shorts in advance of the Academy Awards ceremony, which airs Feb. 24. Here’s a breakdown of the five featured films:
‘Lifeboat’ (40 minutes)
“Lifeboat” is a sobering examination of mass immigration, in this case, telling the story of refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the northern coast of Africa in recent years. Director Skye Fitzgerald and producer Bryn Mooser follow a rescue team from an organization called Sea-Watch, which patrols the waters off the coast of Libya in search of refugee boats. “Lifeboat’s” beautiful cinematography is enhanced by the staggering sight of hundreds of refugees packed onto flimsy inflatable lifeboats, and we hear firsthand accounts of human trafficking and abuse as we watch the members of Sea-Watch distribute life jackets and try to get the people onto more secure transportation.
‘Black Sheep’ (27 minutes)
“Black Sheep” is a firsthand testimonial of a young African boy in London named Cornelius who encounters the brutality of racism after his family moves to Essex in search of a safer community. Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn’s film intercuts between Cornelius’ direct-to-camera narrative and dramatized re-enactments, allowing Cornelius to share a gripping and disturbing story of how he fell in with a group of local toughs and was forced to reinvent his identity and even embrace a violent lifestyle in order to survive.
‘A Night at the Garden’ (7 minutes)
The shortest film on the program, Marshall Curry’s “A Night at the Garden” pieces together footage taken from a Nazi rally held in Madison Square Garden in February 1939. Dubbed “Pro-American Rally” on the marquee outside, we see newsreel-style black-and-white footage of tens of thousands of attendees inside, surrounded by an eerie combination of Nazi symbolism and traditional American imagery, including a 50-foot banner of George Washington.
‘Period. End of Sentence. (26 minutes)
“Period. End of Sentence” is the closest thing to a lighthearted entry on the program. Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton’s film follows a group of ambitious young women in India's Hapur district who are trying to market a sanitary napkin to a population that has barely heard of them. The film opens with an engaging sequence of clips that show embarrassed men and women being asked what they know about menstruation (a group of men say they think it’s a disease that mostly affects women). We learn that less than 10 percent of India's population uses pads and watch as a group of women use a little grassroots capitalism to market their own inexpensive brand of tampon.
‘End Game’ (40 minutes)Comment on this story
There's no shortage of poignant subjects at play in this year’s documentary short program, and “End Game” deals with one that has impacted many: how to handle terminal illness. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film follows a handful of terminally ill patients and their families as they work through the last days and weeks of their lives — either in palliative care at a hospital in San Francisco or at a nearby hospice called the Zen Hospice Project. “End Game” is a thoughtful treatment of end-of-life care that explores themes of faith and family while confronting the blunt realities of terminal illness.
Rating explained: Most of the documentary program content falls in the PG-13 range, with sporadic profanity and adult subject matter. “Black Sheep” does include passages of R-rated profanity, ethnic slurs and some implied violence.