The 2019 Academy Award nominees for best short-subject documentary take storytelling to new heights with eye-opening subjects, impressive camerawork and nods to unsung heroes. All five films address past or present social crises, from pre-World War II Nazism in the United States to human trafficking in modern day Africa. This year’s nominees confront viewers with refreshingly raw content that showcases the best and the worst of humankind.
This biographical film directed by U.K.-based Ed Perkins rises above the rest of the category for its incredible cinematography and raw portrayal of race relations in England. The film follows Cornelius Walker, a son of African immigrants, as he recalls the horrors of growing up in a predominantly white, racist town outside London as a black person. Flashbacks of bullying and broken egos alternate with close-up static shots of Walker’s face as he narrates the experience.
Although the flagrant racism and brutal violence Walker endures is heartbreaking, his coping mechanism is even more so. Desperate to fit in, Walker shuns his physical identity for that of his tormentors. The cameras adjust to extreme close-up shots of Walker bleaching his skin, straightening his hair and inserting blue contacts. He is quickly accepted by the kids who once beat him up, but finds himself drinking to escape the pain of abandoning his real identity. Grown-up Walker admits that his decision to conform to white ideals was a source of shame for years following high school.
Walker’s candid story is a powerful reminder of the racial and sexual prejudices that plague our world. This film is a strong contender for first prize.
“Lifeboat” steps beyond the way in which the recent refugee and migrant crisis has been covered to document the tragedy of migrant experiences in a horrifying new light. Most of the film is spent following a German search-and-rescue ship tasked with saving migrants off the coast of Libya.
Long shots of the vast ocean are contrasted with close-ups of starved migrants crammed into tiny boats. The rescue captain and his crew spend hours transferring thousands of migrants onto their ship. In the process, they find dead bodies and individuals so weak they can barely talk. The film includes several interviews with currently settled refugees who recall the horrible conditions of their past lives. Many were fleeing from a human trafficking holding center in which they were raped, abused and starved.
Though the migrants’ futures are unclear after achieving safety, the implication is that this particular group will find slightly better lives than the ones they left. They will at least be better off than the hundreds of drowned migrants whose bodies wash up on North African shores every year. The cameras do not shy away from graphic images of half-decomposed corpses being carelessly tossed into the back of government vehicles for mass burial. This film is nothing short of shocking, but it is also a harsh reality we need to face if anything is going to change.
This Netflix-produced film puts death in a new perspective by documenting the challenges and fears terminally ill patients face in their final days. Although a lot of the footage feels like an invasion of privacy, it is hard to turn away from such a socially scorned topic. Several palliative care doctors are featured throughout the film. Each discusses the reality of death, regardless of what their religious beliefs may be, and discuss the scientific and even logistical aspects of the experience.
“End Game” makes a valiant effort to normalize the fears that accompany the death of people we know. At the very least, it is comforting to see how far modern medicine can go in easing the transition from life to death.
‘Period. End of Sentence.’
Feminine hygiene is a sensitive subject of discussion in western cultures, and it is even less so in countries such as India. The film initially reveals how menstruation has been used to inferiorize women and prevent them from pursuing further education or positions of prominence in their communities. It is shocking to see how little both men and women know about periods. Some refuse to even say the word, and others simply refer to it as an illness.
The latter part of the film follows a female-led startup that produces and sells low-cost pads. The service is crucial: Many of the women in rural India cannot afford pads, so they use old cloth and discreetly bury it after use. As the women take control of their bodies and their financial future, their confidence skyrockets.
Compared to the other nominees, “Period. End of Sentence.” is poorly filmed with shaky camerawork and rough transitions. However, the documentary is a powerful reminder of the ways in which women are still being discriminated against. Regardless of where she lives, no woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body’s natural biology.
‘A Night at the Garden’
At only seven minutes long, this film is by far the shortest of the group. It is also the weakest competitor, primarily because it feels so distant compared to the relevance of the other films. The film covers the 1939 American Nazi party rally at Madison Square Garden, which is certainly a historically significant event.
Yet it is hard to feel anything but disgust while watching Americans supporting a mortifying ideology. There is no narration and limited subtitles, so wrapping one’s head around the event is difficult to begin with. Since the film is composed entirely of black and white footage from 1939, it is also tough to imagine the film competing against original modern-day cinematography.
The 91st annual Academy Awards will kick off at 8 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 24, and will air on ABC. Tune in then to see which film will win best short-subject documentary.