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Oscars 2021 – Best Documentary Short

Alex reviews the nominees in the short film categories for the 2021 Oscars. The following are his thoughts on the Documentary Short nominees.

Colette

Colette chronicles the travels of former French Resistance member, Colette Marin-Catherine, to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, where her elder brother was killed a mere few weeks before the camp’s liberation. Accompanying her is Lucie Fouble, a young history student and museum docent. This category has seen its fair share of Holocaust-themed nominees, though this happens to be the first one produced by a video game company, with credits shared between virtual-reality ingenue Oculus, as well as Respawn Entertainment, creator of the Call of Duty franchise. Its video game background might suggest a tacky exploitation of a world-renowned historical trauma, but Colette approaches its subject matter with grace and respect.

While journeying towards the death camp, Colette shares memories of aiding her family in the fight against the Nazis, as well as recollections of her brother, Jean-Pierre. Colette and Lucie investigations into the grim details of her brother’s demise, culminate in a powerful scene when the two finally reach Mittelbau-Dora, overcome with emotion, that in lesser hands would have come across as manipulative. But director Anthony Giacchino deftly handles the scene with emotional catharsis. Colette‘s story of loss is a sadly familiar one, but its interest and empathy for its central subject makes it an engaging watch.

A Concerto is a Conversation

Kris Bowers may be a fresh face in the music industry, but he has already made quite a name for himself. Only in his early thirties, he has been attached to high-profile titles including Best Picture winner Green Book, the Netflix mini-series When they See Us (whose director, Ava DuVernay, executive produced this short), and the upcoming Space Jam: A New Legacy. As he prepares to compose his first concerto piece, Concerto for a Younger Self, he converses with the man who proved to be a major influence on him during his formative years; his grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr.

The two share a sit down and discuss how Horace’s childhood in a rural, racist Florida drove him to leave the family farm and establish a life of autonomy by finding his own laundromat in California. They also discuss how he passed down his convictions onto his grandson, serving as one of Kris’s most vocal supporters in his passion for music. Kris (along with co-director, Ben Proudfoot) film the conversations in traditional two-shots, with tight close-up singles of the subjects looking directly into the camera. This grants the audience an insight into the  expressions of the subjects, traces of love and pride filling their eyes and providing a more comforting pull than similar shots used by auteurs such as Jonathan Demme and Barry Jenkins. A sweet and affectionate tribute.

Do Not Split

Considered the most controversial nominee in this category, Do Not Split covers the Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government’s proposed new bill in extraditing criminals to the Chinese mainland without any oversight from Hong Kong representatives. Stories of the mass demonstrations and frequent clashes with armed police were covered in world news media during the summer and fall of 2019, but Split powerfully thrusts us into an insurmountable struggle against powerful authoritarians on an almost daily basis.

Told mainly through cell phone video footage, we see the struggle through various perspectives, primarily Joey Su, who gave up her academic future in order to lead the student movement against the Chinese government. The footage paints a chaotic picture of the situation: Masked protestors vandalize bank buildings, a father decries police brutally assaulting his son, and students attempt to provide aid to allies trapped in a campus building surrounded by armed forces. A single overhead shot showing a clash between police and students at a bridge is the only instance where we are given a clear picture of the overwhelming situation citizens face against a formidable, armed system. The main reason for the Chinese government’s insistence on Hong Kong refusing to air this year’s Oscars ceremony live, this is a harrowing, essential work.

Hunger Ward

The casualties of war tend to include adult civilians, but what about children? Children who, of all groups of war victims, struggle the most in attaining the most basic of needs? Hunger Ward covers this topic through two Yemeni hospitals providing aid to malnourished children during a terrible famine borne from the country’s ongoing civil war (the opening titles describe Yemen’s famine as the worst of its kind in over a century).

Our primary figures are Doctor Aida Alsadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi, supervisors at Sadaqa hospital and Aslam Clinic, respectively. We watch them tend to starving children, some mere babies, offering comfort and providing them with essential nutrition. Their families are impoverished, having lost all their livestock due to bombings from Saudi planes. Like Do Not Split, we strongly sympathize with our protagonists in their feeling of powerlessness against overwhelming forces. Both doctors manage to save some of the children, while others succumb to their starvation. There is a harrowing sequence involving a grief-stricken grandmother howling sorrowfully at the loss of her infant child. She blames the staff, accusing them of being grossly irresponsible despite their calm explanations that the cause of death was a result from tainted milk. The human lens Hunger Ward gives to this crisis lends the film a sense of urgency, its empathy along with its mention of U.S involvement in bombings of Yemen prompting audiences to take action.

A Love Song for Latasha

Latasha Harlins was a fifteen-year old girl whose murder at a convenience store made national headlines and became a precursor for the L.A. Riots. Thirty years after her untimely death, A Love Song for Latasha takes a look at her life and personality. Testimonies from friends and family portray her as a sharply tenacious spirit, a straight A student aspiring to be a lawyer. Her siblings recall her strong will while aiding her grandmother in raising them after their mother was unexpectedly killed in 1985.

Coupling interviews with a 90s video aesthetic, we are not only transported back to a particular time period, but also into the mindset of its interviewees. Their recollections of Latasha are made tangible, if only just starting to fade after so many years. Latasha’s murder is recalled with animation as lines take shape and change form, reflecting the shock, pain and turmoil which remains for her loved ones a source for heartbreak. A Love Song for Latasha paints a portrait of a bright star snuffed out too soon for this world, but her glow can still be seen by those who knew her, and like Polaris, charted the course for their remaining lives.

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