These films demonstrate what’s often so great about documentaries: here’s where you find real courage and everyday heroism, and not in mythic, muscular, blockbusters.
2015 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA.
By Gerald Peary
A woman I observed at the 2015 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts exited the theatre unhappily shaking her head. She complained to her husband, “Different from other years’ shorts, nothing that we saw was ‘uplifting.’” Well, dear lady, not in the vulgar Hollywood sense. But this superior choosing of non-fiction works, the best shorts I’ve seen vying for an Academy Award, are packed with worthy human beings scrambling to make something of their gritty, unfair lives. These films demonstrate what’s often so great about documentaries: here’s where you find real courage and everyday heroism, and not in mythic, muscular, blockbusters.
One short is from Mexico and a duo come from Poland, exactly the same number as from the USA. A nicely global selection. Of the two American films, however, one made by Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry for HBO, does have the clearest path to the Oscar. That’s the gripping “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” about the dutiful people who are on call answering the telephones at The Veterans Crisis Line in upstate New York, the only such center we have for our ex-military. Their arduous job is to talk very troubled American vets—depressed, alcoholic, on drugs, guilt-ridden, having battle flashbacks — out of committing suicide.
Since 2001, far more veterans kill themselves than American soldiers die in battle. According to this film, a vet takes his or her life on average every hour of the day, and this crisis center has fielded an unfathomable 900,000 desperate phone calls. That’s what we observe up close in “Crisis Hotline,” a series of intense scenes in which various “responders” in the office answer their phones, and there’s a suicide threat at the other end of the line. If the right questions aren’t asked, the right things aren’t said, and with the right tone of voice, a gun could go off, a head could be put in a noose. The aftermath of having fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Blessedly, the staff is extraordinary at talking veterans down, and encouraging them to give life, however miserable, yet another try. There’s one of the “responders” who is especially talented at this. Instead of “Tell it to the Marines,” vets should unburden themselves telling it to Maureen.
The other American short is J. Christian Jensen’s stunningly photographed “White Earth,” a Master’s Thesis project for Stanford University. This 20-minute film is a complement to the superb 2014 feature documentary, The Overnighters which, unfortunately, did not make the final Oscar cut. Both tell Grapes of Wrath-like stories of the migration of America’s poor and unwanted to the oil fields of North Dakota, where they were met with impossible winters and financial disappointment. The Overnighters is about the exploited workers, “White Earth” speaks of the families of these workers, wives and children uprooted and dragged here from warmer climates, now residing in claustrophobic trailers while their ever-absent fathers are in the fields trying to make a living.
We’re back with the male provider in Gabriel Serra Arguello’s “The Reaper.” This beaten, bedraggled Mexican is shown on the job he has held for 25 years, putting a bullet into the head of cattle in a slaughterhouse. He does this grim task 500 times a day, six days a week, and feels awful about it. Yet his wife and many kids need to eat. The scenes of frightened cows and bulls are excruciating to watch, but I felt a deep sympathy for the killer protagonist of this film, something I never experienced for serial assassin Chris Kyle in An American Sniper.
Finally, the two Polish documentaries, similarly themed family dramas, two sets of young intelligent parents with a son and a medical emergency. One ends blissfully, one very badly. In “Our Curse,” Tomasz (filmmaker Tomasz Sliwinsk) and his wife, Magda, have a baby, Leo, who is “cursed” with Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome. Translation: he has to breathe through a plastic tube in his throat, through which oxygen is pushed at night. Otherwise, he would stop breathing when he falls asleep—seemingly, a lifetime condition. Several critics I read made the same connection I did, to the creature in David Lynch’s Eraserhead with his horror-film breathing and gasping. That’s what Leo sounds like all night in his crib, driving his parents to lunacy. But they love him also, and tenaciously stick with him. We follow Leo through his first birthday party and his emergence as a happy, vital child.
Aneta Kopacz’s “Joanna” is the series’ most tragic work. Again, there’s a mom, Joanna, and a dad and a little boy, about 8. We watch Joanna and her precocious son having rapt conversations, and she asks him deep questions and speaks with him without the slightest condescension. They are very close, but she has a secret. And that secret, which slowly unfolds, is that she is dying of cancer. So sad!
A curiosity about these five tough films is the absence anywhere of religion. Coaxing veterans to stay on earth is done in “Crisis Hotline” without an appeal to their Christianity, asking them whether suicide is a venial sin. There’s no churchgoing in “White Earth,” and no Catholic relics in the Mexico of “The Reaper.” “Our Curse,” with the decision to keep a medically challenged baby, comes close to being pro-life, but secularly so. The two parents accept Leo because they love him, not because he is God’s creation. As for Joanna, she never mentions the comforts of the Lord as her cancer worsens. In fact, the opposite. The penultimate shot of the movie, Joanna looks upward to the heavens and then laughs, scornfully, blasphemously. She rejects God. She wants to stay on earth, and watch her darling boy learn how to ride a bike.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess