Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Best documentary shorts (for Oscars) get very personal in 2015

Last night I saw the five nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject at the West End Cinema in Washington.
I think the meatiest film was “Joanna”, by Aneta Kopacz (2013, Poland, 40 minutes, Wajda Studios). Joanna, a young woman about 30, has terminal cancer, unspecified (but due to the pain, likely involving bones).  She makes a video blog for her five year old son.  The film doesn’t pay much heed to the mechanics of blogging, but focuses on the video record of the time with her son.  There is a touching conversation near the end where she talks about the time he will learn to spend by himself.
The visuals are interesting.  Early in the film, mother and son are building an imaginary kingdom, a kid of Middle Earth, with Lego blocks over a huge game highway map.  I’m not sure where you find the game map in a toy store, but as a boy I build a layout like that in the basement on a huge rug with crisscross “streets”, and later did that with model trains.  Later, much of the film moves outdoors into the lake country of Poland.  It’s flat or marginally hilly, and farmers use old-fashioned methods, at least as viewed from the train I took in 1999.  At one point, there is a park entrance, with some vegetable gardens, that reminds me of Accokeek in Maryland.
Hers was not the traditional “Mommy blog”, although a short film about Heather Armstrong would be interesting (there has been a Nightline report about her she built her blogging business after being fired from a job – “dooced”  -- for what she said on her blog in 2002.
A related film (in the second half) was “Our Curse” (“Nasza Klatwa”) Thomas Sliwinski, also Poland, 29 minutes).  This time, it is the child who is disabled.  The toddler has “Ondine’s Curse” (hypoventilation syndrome) where the child stops breathing whenever sleeping and has to be ventilated whenever he falls asleep.  Yet it is possible to grow up and live some number of years, despite the incredible attention required.  One could say this film deals with the risk any parent takes with having children.  But it is also about the incredible intimacy between parents and child in such situations, something I don’t experience myself.  Most of the film is indoors, until the end, when there is again the familiar Polish countryside.  The official site is here.
The other “larger” film, that opened the program, was “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”, by Ellen Goosenberg-Kent, for HBO, 39 minutes, shows a suicide crisis call center for veterans in upstate New York.  Most of this is inside and shows workers talking in cubicles, so it seems more like ongoing reality than a film.  The personal commitment behind the workers (or are they volunteers?) who talk to the veterans, often starting suicide and claiming PSTD, is astonishing.  Is this work something I would even consider that I “should” do?
One point that came out is that police do get called and do “welfare” checks on uncooperative call recipients.   There is also mention of special traumas from Vietnam veterans, who, when on infantry night patrols (often every third night, according to my own Army Basic) shot anything that oved on sight. The official site is here
The film “The Reaper” (“La Parka”, by Gabriel Serra, 29 minutes) shows a middle aged man, Efrain, working in a slaughter house in Mexico, killing bulls, something he has done for 25 years to feed a family.  His seems to be done with an electrocution prod after the animal is trapped. There is a short film on Vimeo from Slovenia by Simon Plestenjak “Slaughterhouse Workers” showing similar scenes, here.   Somebody has to do it, right?   Serra says these are all living creatures, and that when he dies he will “leave the Earth” just like they do.  His job has destroyed his belief in the afterlife. I was reminded of the 1995 Australian film “Babe” (Chris Noonan) about growing up on a farm as a piglet, and his experience of being told his job was to “eat his food” so he could be slaughtered when fat, and about what he learned about his fate from the barn cat. I guess this short film makes a moral argument not only for vegetarianism but even veganism. (Please, no "Pig in the City".) 

White Earth”, by J. Christian Jensen, 20 min. is a short by a Stanford film student about growing up in the oil patch in North Dakota (official site ).  The film reminds me of “The Overnighters” (Nov. 15, 2014), and Lisa Ling’s “This Is Life” report (“Filthy Rich” and “Man Camp” on the TV blog, Nov 30, 2014).  The narrator is a little boy who for a while doesn’t go to school, but then is in a classroom with a male teacher asking grade schoolers to write down what oil means to them. 
The shorts are broken into two programs.  The first one, at 7:40 (the two longest) was fairly full, but I was the only one to stay for the second. 

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of oligotrophic lake in SE Poland.  “"Kurtkowiec i czerwone". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, unported.

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