Dead children, democracy being crushed, senseless Nazi atrocities — there’s not much happiness in this year’s collection of Oscar-nominated short documentaries, unless you count the man who actually survived racism and homelessness to become a proud, successful grandpa. Each of these long “shorts” finds protagonists to root for; some contain seeds of hope; all boast polish and relevance that make them awards-ready. But this is a draining way to spend two and a quarter hours, especially considering how many of us are already coasting on nearly depleted emotional batteries at the moment.
The set’s opener, Love Song for Latasha, is both intimate and distant in its approach to a horrific crime: Three decades have passed since the murder of 15 year-old Angeleno Latasha Harlins, who was shot by a convenience-store owner who got off with practically no punishment. (The killer shot her in the back of the head, claiming she was trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. The money to buy it was in Harlins’ hand.) True to the title, director Sophia Nahli Allison focuses on friends’ and relatives glowing memories of Latasha’s life, visualizing summer days with dreamy reenactments. The 19-minute film doesn’t have the time for ugly details that might push it away from its priority: a lament for what Harlins could have done with her life, how she would’ve supported her friends and the effect she’d have had on a community in which she was “the neighborhood big sister.”
Have something comforting planned for after the show.
American racism gets a happier ending in A Concerto Is a Conversation, in which composer Kris Bowers (Green Book) and co-director Ben Proudfoot spend some quality time with Bowers’ 91 year-old grandfather, Horace Bowers, Sr. Staging their conversation with sentimental techniques one would expect from a man celebrating the grandfather he loves and admires (this is basically a glossier, filmed version of a StoryCorps interview), Kris listens as Horace tells of escaping the Jim Crow south as a youngster, hitchhiking to Denver, then liking the sound of a destination he’d never heard of, Los Angeles. With more than a little hustle (and a scheme to circumvent white bankers’ prejudices), he was soon the owner of a growing business.
Bowers has just one year on Colette Marin-Catherine, a onetime member of the French Resistance, who, at 90, agrees to finally visit the concentration camp where her brother (and comrade) was killed during WWII. Anthony Giacchino’s Colette follows the energetic nonagenarian, who has an engagingly complicated attitude toward what happened then and what it means now — watch her shut down the mayor of a German town as he assures a small crowd Germany will never repeat its crimes. But once she’s actually at the site, with a young student who’s documenting her brother’s story, even she is surprised at her response.
The program’s agonizingly long midsection belongs to Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward, a war-zone account that is difficult to watch even compared to its fellow nominees. We open on a hospital that handles the worst cases of child starvation caused by Yemen’s ongoing civil war, and viewers should know this will not be an abstract account. Graphic footage observes children who appear to have been caught in a bomb blast, or have skeleton-thin arms, or who die while the camera is rolling. Relatives erupt in grief and misdirected anger, sometimes blaming the female professionals who keep this operation running. Fitzgerald, for her part, largely blames the Western governments who have supported Saudi involvement in this underexposed but devastating war.
Leaping into the fray in a much better-publicized conflict, Anders Hammer’s Do Not Split resembles last year’s Ai Weiwei feature doc Cockroach without being made redundant by it at all. Both films walk elbow-to-elbow with young protesters leading 2019’s movement for democracy in Hong Kong; they visit some of the same sites, watching as innocent bystanders are wounded by police and as anti-China combatants lob handmade firebombs at opposing troops. But the episodes and interviewees are just different enough to make both films feel urgent — necessary viewing for citizens of democracies that have proven just as fragile as Hong Kong’s, but haven’t yet led to this kind of uprising.
Production company: ShortsTV Directors: Anthony Giacchino, Kris Bowers & Ben Proudfoot, Anders Hammer, Skye Fitzgerald, Sophia Nahli Allison