Review: 2016 Oscar-nominated Short Docs

Five worthy nominees, but one clear winner

8 mins read

Don’t let the cold air get you down. It’s perfect shorts weather!

The nip of winter brings the buzz of award season. As the date of the Academy Awards approaches the annual scramble to check off the most elusive Oscar nominees ends with the usual bunch: the shorts.

This year’s group of nominees for Best Documentary, Short Subject are all worthy of a nomination. They’re a heavy bunch, though, but the films screen in two groups this year due to the length of the nominees. A break between films provides some necessary air to breathe.

The first documentary shorts programme includes the harrowing migration odyssey 4.1 Miles (USA, 22 min.) directed by Daphe Matziaraki, which documents the valiant efforts of Kyriakos Papadopoulos and the Greek Coast Guard as they save the lives of migrants in the waters near the small island of Lesbos. Matziaraki nabs some riveting, if distressing, footage of refugees in limbo as the Coast Guard saves them from the waters. Boat upon boat needs rescuing and the doc captures the tireless actions of workers saving and resuscitating children. The film makes an urgent plea for awareness and assistance in offering safe methods for refugees to find a home. On the heels of Best Documentary Feature nominee Fire at Sea, however, this comparatively rough production might not have the same calibre of artistry as Gianfranco Rosi’s doc does, but, like the longer film, this short gives an urgent portrait of the global migration crisis.

Somewhat more likely to buoy viewers and voters is the uplifting doc Joe’s Violin (USA, 24 min.), directed by Kahane Cooperman. This wonderful film shares the power of music to heal and transform as Cooperman charts the journey of one violin from Berlin to the Bronx when Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold donates his cherished violin to charity. Feingold recounts the significance of the instrument in his journey back from the labour camps and to his new home in America, while the recipient of the violin, a young student named Brianna, appreciates the legacy he entrusts in her care. Joe’s Violin offers a melody of past and present as Cooperman entwines the stories of both musicians, offering a touching essay on the history that endures in instruments and, more significantly, in the power of music to heal, inspire, and create communities.

The third film in programme A — and the one not freely available online — is Netflix’s poignant ER doc  Extremis (dir. Dan Krauss; USA, 24 min.). This observational doc takes audiences into the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California where Dr. Jessica Zitter helps families make crucial decisions for terminally ill patients. Krauss approaches the subject with the utmost sensitivity as families permit him to capture some of the most intimate and painful moments they’ll ever experience as Zitter helps them weigh the pros and cons between pursuing treatment and accepting death. Some more context on Zitter’s profession, role, and background could make the doc more illuminating and sharpen an argument, but Extremis offers an undeniably powerful glimpse into the difficult choice in letting a loved one die with dignity. There are no easy answers in this film and Krauss’s objective and compassionate approach understands the difficulty of the situation.

Programme B offers a double bill of shorts that offer eye-opening portraits of the state of affairs in Syria and engage with many of the themes evoked in the other nominees. Watani: My Homeland (UK, 40 min.), directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen, provides a sentimental look at the journey of one family from the front lines of Aleppo to their new home in Germany. Interviews with Hama, her husband Abu Ali, and their four children illuminate the emotional and personal toll of saying goodbye to one’s home even if it’s a warzone ripped apart by ISIS. The film becomes very effective when Abu Ali disappears following an encounter with ISIS and leaves a notable absence in the film as Hama and her children fear the worst. As with 4.1 Miles, Watani: My Homeland is a timely film that tells the world to step up and help refugees around the globe.

Finally, The White Helmets (Netherlands, 41 min.) from Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel deserves as many votes from the Academy as it can get. While the four other docs all boast compelling subjects, The White Helmets has the higher level of finesse in its delivery, which ultimately makes the worthy subject matter resonate with greater force as von Einsiedel provides a thorough and sobering portrait of the men in Aleppo’s neutral civilian volunteer force known as “the white helmets.” The White Helmets is an outstanding fusion of wartime journalism and exceptional filmmaking as the director and his team take their cameras into the chaos of the war against ISIS to show the white helmets in action.

These helpers in the helmets are true heroes and the filmmaking is equally courageous. The White Helmets literally captures shots within target zones at the moment of impact. It might offer the closest footage to warzone of Aleppo one will see from the safety of a theatre. Outstanding cinematography documents the white helmets as they save their neighbours from rubble and the calibre of filmmaking is all the more impressive given the disorienting environment in which it happens. Interviews with the men of the white helmets provide ample insight into what’s at stake in the fight and offer valuable talking points to help erase the negative images of Muslims that have been exacerbated in the age of ISIS. Most significantly, though, the film culminates with a white-knuckler of a sequence in which the volunteers hear the cries of a child beneath the rubble of a building. As hands pitch in and the camera spies the small child clinging to life in the ruins, The White Helmets provides a much-needed flicker of light in a dire situation. Even if it doesn’t scoop the Academy Award, The White Helmets deserves a platform as big as the Oscars to draw attention to this plight.

The Oscar-nominated short docs open in limited release Feb. 10.
(Canadian release currently delayed due to rights issues.)
The Oscar shorts will be available on VOD and iTunes on Feb. 21.


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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