Five Short Docs on the Oscar Shortlist

Reviewing a quintet of contenders

12 mins read

Following the news of the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary, Short Subject, POV presents reviews for five of the contenders — with links to watch four of them! (And more to come.)

Let us know which doc gets your vote!

Hunger Ward
(USA, 40 min.)
Dir. Skye Fitzgerald


Director Skye Fitzgerald earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for Life Boat, and he should land one again for Hunger Ward. This deeply moving observational film chronicles the efforts of two women fighting the war on hunger in Yemen. Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi treat numerous young patients who are on the brink of death. These victims don’t often make the news stories and headlines. Hunger Ward looks at the devastation that comes after the bombs drop and in between the air strikes. The country is at the brink of famine and food scarcity threatens to increase the death toll of a largely forgotten war.

A film about pediatric starvation is inevitably difficult to watch, but Hunger Ward is a work of laudable convictions. The doc observes as Dr. Alasdeeq and nurse Mahdi strive to restore the health of Yemen’s children. There are 10-year-old children in Hunger Ward who are barely 50 pounds when soaking wet. There are children who die and infants who suffocate on the milk meant to feed them. The cameras are present for every moment of the families’ pain and heartache. The devastation and frustration wears on the doctors and staff. Hunger Ward refuses to look away, yet remains respectful of the suffering it sees.

Going beyond journalistic objectivity, the film’s approach is one of empathy. It’s an intimate eyewitness account of the hellish experience of losing a child to hunger. Hunger Ward is a war film unlike any other. – Pat Mullen


(USA, 25 min.)
Dir. Anthony Giacchino

The relationship that unfolds over the course of Colette’s 25-minute runtime between a feisty old French woman and a student fascinated by her family’s story, is likely what won the hearts of the Academy thus far. The short doc is a moving character study of Colette Marin-Catherine, the last surviving member of a family that fought the Nazis as part of the French Resistance of World War II. Her brother, Jean-Pierre, was captured as a French political prisoner and died in a concentration camp just weeks before liberation.

This is where a young history student named Lucie Fouble comes in. She is creating a “biographical dictionary” of the French deportees who passed through the camp. While Marin-Catherine’s preferred method of coping is forgetting and she has not visited Germany due to a distaste for “morbid tourism,” Fouble’s work touches her. The two journey to the site of the Nordhausen camp together for Fouble’s research, documenting Jean-Pierre’s legacy as they go. Marin-Catherine immediately takes to Fouble as if she were her own granddaughter.

Their relationship is captured in a bare-bones cinema verité style that allows for Marin-Catherine’s carefully articulated musings to be at the forefront of the film. The result is a doc that captures the ways in which one woman has dealt with the trauma of losing someone during a tragic event. It also reveals a tender relationship that blossoms between two people staring into the horrific face of state-sanctioned violence, arm in arm. – Madeline Lines

Colette is streaming via the Guardian.


A Concerto Is a Conversation
(USA, 13 min.)
Dir. Ben Proudfoot, Kris Bowers

An indelible slice of virtuoso filmmaking, A Concerto Is a Conversation features more turns and movements than the average feature doc does. In just a mere thirteen minutes, the film unpacks one man’s sense of alienation and the history of systemic racism that inspires him to question his right to belong. However, it’s also a film about learning to claim and own one’s space with pride. Concerto shows this facet beautifully in the dialogue between director/subject Kris Bowers and his grandfather, Horace.

Kris, a concert pianist and composer, discusses his craft with his grandfather. He admits that despite his success, he wonders what right he has as a Black man to belong in a field that remains overwhelmingly white. Framed in an immediately engaging shot/reverse shot conversation between the two generations, the Bowers discuss the family’s journey from Jim Crow America to the most esteemed concert halls of the nation. There is a great rapport between the two generations of Bowers as Horace recalls recognizing prejudice at an early age and working to create new opportunities for his family, landing a job at a drycleaner and soon owning the place himself. As Kris feeds off his grandfather’s energy, he recalls how his parents literally planned for his career as a pianist while he was still in the womb. Cut to present and he’s the piano double on Oscar winning films like Green Book and playing concerts for President Obama.

The two voices create a wonderful harmony, like one hand tickling the ivories of a keyboard while the other manages the chords. Dazzlingly cut together with a sprightly touch, A Concerto Is a Conversation plays with delicate musicality. It’s a delightful work played with a maestro’s hand. – PM

A Concerto Is a Conversation is available via the New York Times’ Op-Docs.

Hysterical Girl
(USA, 13 min.)
Dir. Kate Novack

This whirlwind of a short doc whips by with flashes of recent incidents of rape culture patched together to reframe a Freudian case and make a point about how little has changed. The case study of “Dora” is posited at the beginning of the film as Sigmund Freud’s only major case study to follow a woman, which reduces her experiences of sexual assault and predation to her own hysteria.

Director Kate Novack recreates the character of Dora by taking actress Tommy Vines, throwing black eyeliner and sneakers on her, and having her rehash the case study from Dora’s perspective in modern candor. The subject matter, title, and sense of indignation central to the short would almost have it pair well with a viewing of Promising Young Woman.

Direct cuts from moments in Dora’s story to the testimonies of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford (and many other cultural touchpoints) sometimes land, but sometimes hit the viewer over the head. While it is a worthwhile corrective to Freud’s inescapable legacy, the point is somewhat elongated even at 13 minutes. Nonetheless, Hysterical Girl is a zippy and creatively constructed, showing how ancient misogynist narratives persist to this day. -ML

Hysterical Girl is streaming via the New York Times’ Op-Docs.


Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa
(USA, 13 min.)
Dir. Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, Mike Attie


Sometimes all a film needs a simple conceit to achieve a profound effect. This provocative film witnesses the efforts of the volunteers at the Philadelphia abortion helpline. They all go by the name “Lisa” to preserve their anonymity.

The doc observes as one Lisa after another takes calls with women in search of financial assistance for an abortion. In the USA, the right to choose exists simply for women who can afford it thanks to the Hyde amendment, which states that federal funds can’t be used in cases of abortion except when the pregnancy is life threatening or the result of incest or rape. The calls feature volunteers asking sensitively and compassionately about the callers’ financial situations. How much money have they raised for the procedure, is there anyone who can help, and if they have a reliable income are just a few questions on the script. But these queries feed an equation that determines how much of the limited funds the hotline can provide each woman. Between one question and the next, the image cuts to a wider shot, revealing new information about how much money is left in the allotment for each week and shift. The sums are rarely enough.

The doc includes some background on the Hyde Amendment and an infrequent cutaway to members of the House of Representatives debating a woman’s right to choose. The context is helpful, but the voices that really matter are the ones outside Congress. They’re on the phones asking the Lisas of the land for help. Demonstrating clear evidence of need and heroic efforts for support, Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa underscores the inequalities that are widened when only the wealthy can decide what’s in their best interests. It’s a compelling call for action. -PM

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa is available to stream via Topic on Vimeo.

Also on the shortlist is the Netflix doc What Would Sophia Loren Do?.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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