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Film Review: ‘2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary’

Variety logo Variety 2/26/2017 Peter Debruge
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The Academy has a strange idea of “best” when it comes to documentary shorts. Rather than celebrating innovation and artistry in this particular category, the organization’s nonfiction branch nearly always gravitates toward the mini-movies (40 minutes or less) that tackle the Big Issues — which this year include the crisis in Syria, immigration woes in southern Europe, the uneasy question of euthanasia, and, of course, the Holocaust. Should future historians want to gauge where the Academy’s political sentiments lay any given year, they need only analyze this category, which might more accurately be called “most important documentary short.” For film fans catching up with the nominees in cinemas or on-demand at home, the program makes for a downbeat but illuminating 2½-hour marathon.

In what feels like an incredibly polished infomercial for WQXR’s instrument drive, “Joe’s Violin” combines two Big Issues in one: Joseph Feingold is a charitable Holocaust survivor who donated his violin to a program that puts instruments in the hands of disadvantaged students. It’s a terrific system, organized by the New York classical music station and facilitated by the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, that seized on the unique backstory of this particular violin (which Feingold found at a flea market and acquired for a carton of cigarettes, following his liberation from an internment camp) for a bit of well-meaning publicity. Does Kahane Cooperman’s short illuminate anything about either the Holocaust or the hard knocks of America’s education system? No, but it sure makes you wish there was a cello collecting dust in the attic that you could donate.

Stylistically speaking, Dan Krauss’ vérité-style “Extremis” (the first of two Oscar-nommed Netflix entries) couldn’t be more different: It deals with a series of wrenching emotional situations as ICU doctors navigate the tricky decision of how to handle patients on critical life support, but there is minimal interference from director Dan Krauss’ fly-on-the-wall camera as he observes the drama unfold. Like such issues as abortion and the sequestering of children with mental disabilities, these end-of-life concerns are facts of contemporary life that are too often swept under the rug, or else simplified in melodramatic medical procedurals. As the title implies, “Extremis” is a difficult film to watch, but a vital one all the same, putting audiences in the position of imagining what kind of decision they would make if they found themselves or a loved one relying on life support.

In what would make a perfect double-bill with this year’s Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea,” Greek-born, San Francisco-based filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki’s “4.1 Miles” personalizes a phenomenon that otherwise proves too massive to wrap our heads around. The film ends with the fact that, “Between 2015 and 2016, 600,000 migrants crossed the 4.1 miles of water between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos” — whose coast guard is kept busy trying to rescue these Afghani and Syrian families before their flimsy vessels sink en route (“Fire at Sea” examines the same situation on the island of Lampeduza). The problem is too vast to speak of solutions, and so Matziaraki focuses on the everyday heroism and humanity of the Greeks whose concern transcends politics, conveying an attitude where every life matters.

The last two shorts, both about Syria, bring a similar sensibility to the world’s most pressing conflict. In “Watani: My Homeland,” Marcel Mettelsiefen follows a family from Aleppo (where the rebel-fighter father, Abu Ali, is taken prisoner by ISIS off-camera) through Turkey, to the tiny German town of Goslar, whose dwindling local population welcomes immigrants, lest the historic city disappear entirely (that phenomenon alone could easily warrant its own film). A photojournalist who has spent the last half-dozen years focused on the Arab Spring, Mettelsiefen shrewdly uses these characters — including the family’s four young children — to make this distant issue accessible. The eldest daughter, Helen, is smitten with boys and eager to assimilate, while young Sara is so traumatized by bombings back home that she instinctively screams and runs for cover when she a helicopter passes over a Turkish playground.

In “The White Helmets,” director Orlando von Einsiedel (who was Oscar nominated two years ealier for “Virunga”) introduces us to nonpartisan Syrian rescue workers who spring into action after every bombing — so named because of their signature protective headgear. Their mission: to pull the injured from the rubble, no matter their allegiance. As tailor-turned-humanitarian Mohammed Farah (who laid down his weapon to join the White Helmets) puts it, “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.” Playing like an episode of “Cops” at times, with its action-oriented hot-pursuit shooting style, the doc follows the team on a month-long training course in Turkey and reunites them with a “miracle baby” they’d earlier rescued from the rubble. Like “Watani,” the doc manages to reveal many facets of the complex Syrian conflict — from the human-rights outrage resulting from the regime and Russian air strikes targeting civilians to the notion that the “sides” are anything but clear in this fight.

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