A lot of death, sadness, and hope color the nominations this year.
Each year, the Oscars nominate fifteen short films, five in each of the three categories of Documentary, Live Action, and Animation. The total runtime comes close to six hours, and I watched them all in one sitting.
I’m no stranger to movie marathons, but I knew these ones were going to be pretty heavy, and in hindsight the word “heavy” doesn’t entirely do it justice. There was a lot of death, and a whole lot of sadness. After I walked out of the final showing, someone who knew that I had just binged all 6 hours of shorts gently asked, “Are you okay?”
The weirdest thing was that I was more than okay, I felt oddly renewed and not nearly as lingeringly morose as I expected (but, of course I was still sad).
Maybe it’s because there is also a lot of hope in these short films, and a lot of examples of good people in the world.
Let’s break it all down – in shorts form.
DEATH AND DEATH (NO TAXES)
The big name in the Documentary category this year is End Game, a 40-minute, Netflix-produced documentary that follows what happens to terminally ill people when they begin dealing with the fact that they’re on their way out.
This is one of those heavy hitters I mentioned earlier, but it’s also one with the most hope and silver-linings.
The patients of the film approach their own, and others’, mortality in a myriad of ways – a young woman with cancer keeps smiling and vows to take the rest of her life one blessed day at a time; another woman on her last weeks with terminal cancer vows to live like everything is going to be okay, even though it isn’t; and, a grouping of other terminally ill humans greet the inevitable with their chin held high and a vast appreciation for the lives they were able to live.
Seeing End Game so early in my marathon put me in an interesting headspace to view the rest of the incredibly heavy and death-focused shorts: if death is inevitable, why do the living spend so much time fearing it, and pretending it doesn’t exist?
There are two key quotes, from two key physicians, that sum up our (very human) feelings about death:
“Healthy people think about how they’re going to die and sick people think about how they want to live.”
“You don’t run away from the bad stuff… you don’t run away from the suffering.”
I overheard a lot of complaints that throughout all of the shorts there was “too much death.” Many people felt that this was a genuine flaw in the Academy’s nominations this year, and some indignantly asked, “Is the Academy feeling okay this year?”
Should we pretend that death isn’t something that marks every single person’s life? Should we only ever watch media that presents the world in sunshine and rainbows, and never acknowledge the inevitable end of our journeys?
Maybe, thinking about death can change how we live our lives.
EXPLOITATION: SUBJECTIVE OR JUST PLAIN BAD?
A number of shorts this year, mostly Live Action, have been overwhelmingly considered to be exploitative by moviegoers. People have said that End Game should have given the patients and families more space, while advocates for the movie say that the closeness is what makes the film so powerful.
Many called out the Academy for picking so many shorts that put children in harm’s way (Fauve, Madre, and Skin, from the Live Action, just to name a few) saying these films exploit our emotions for the sake of an Oscar.
However, nothing has been given as much pushback, and cries of exploitation, as Detainment.
The Live Action short retells, and reenacts, the true story of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, two ten-year-old boys who were convicted of torturing and murdering 2-year-old James Bulger in England in the early 90s. It uses police interview tapes to reconstruct the interrogations of the two boys, as well as CCTV footage from the mall where the child was taken.
It seems pretty obvious at first why a lot of people might find the piece exploitative: who could possibly derive joy at watching a film where two children grapple with the moral, legal, and emotional ramifications of brutally murdering a toddler? Despite the superb acting from the child actors, it was increasingly uncomfortable to watch, but is discomfort alone worthy of being exploitive?
My answer, personally, is no, but the film’s true exploitation actually comes from behind the scenes. Immediately after the Oscar nominations were announced, Bulger’s mother Denise Fergus called for a retraction of their nomination; turns out, the Bulger family was never notified that the film was being made. Knowing this makes the short more uncomfortable than previously thought possible, and potentially negates any cinematic benefit held therein.
Yet, it should be noted that the rest of the Live Action nominations don’t hold back at putting children in harm’s way. The difference, though, is the others are entirely fictitious.
When we see a mother in sheer terror at the prospect of her son being in danger, as in the live action short Madre, is it exploitative only if it really happened, or should we refuse to watch even if it’s made up? What about the existential sadness that comes from the realization of a life unlived, as in Marguerite?
Perhaps that discomfort is just part of being alive. However, we should never need to experience discomfort as a result of another’s personal gain.
NAZI PUNKS MUST DIE
Aside from death and child endangerment, the other uncomfortable theme that runs through the nominated shorts is race and white supremacy – specifically Nazis.
The Documentary category features two hard-hitting takes on racism: Black Sheep and A Night at the Garden, while Live Action featured the American short Skin.
The former documentary, which has been made available online by The Guardian, puts Cornelius Walker in the hot seat as he tells how he, a black man, found himself willingly befriending a gang of white racists in the English town where his family lived. Walker admits that the entire reason he changed his clothes, style, and even his skin color, to match the white people around him was simply because he wanted to feel loved and accepted, even if that meant being someone he wasn’t.
Black Sheep reminds us that race isn’t always so easy to parse through, it’s not just hating someone for their skin color, throwing out slurs, and being violent. Sometimes it affects others in ways that we can’t see on the surface, and sometimes it has dire consequences that people in majority literally cannot fathom.
Meanwhile, in A Night at the Garden, available online from Field of Vision, is a 7-minute film that consists almost entirely of archival footage from a 20,000 person Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939.
Yes, you read that right: 20,000 people in the United States in 1939 attended a pro-Nazi rally; this was one year before the US formally entered World War 2, after Hitler had already built his sixth concentration camp.
The purpose of the film was to shine a light on the US’s history of sitting on the side of the oppressor, but it seems to be aimed at people who, for whatever reason, weren’t already aware of this. Sure, it’s hard to watch, but for many of us this is something we deal with daily.
The only really shocking thing to me about this documentary was the inclusion of footage of a man rushing the stage, being beaten senseless by stormtroopers, and finally dragged off by NYPD, with zero mention of who this man was.
A very quick google search reveals that the man was Isadore Greenbaum. He was arrested for the brave act of being a Jewish man who rushed the stage at a Nazi rally, and the filmmakers couldn’t even be bothered to tell you his name. Shock value may have been what put Triumph of the Will at the top of the infamous American films list, but in the year 2019 is that really the path we want to take?
I WISH WE COULD ALL WALK OUT
Throughout my viewings, and the showings in the days around then, some people huffily grabbed their things and walked out of the theater mid-short.
This happened during my viewing of Lifeboat, the heartbreaking documentary about refugees in boats trying to cross the Mediterranean, and the people dedicated to rescuing them. I heard them mutter something about “I can’t do this anymore,” while someone else wordlessly shook their head as they left.
This happened during another screening of Fauve, the Quebecois Live Action short where two young boys are playing typical childhood prank and dare games in quarry with dire consequences. They cited “too much child death,” and said these filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves. To be fair, this short comes after Detainment, which would be enough to turn anyone’s stomach.
Despite the heaviness, raw emotion, and tension that permeates many of these shorts, it should be worth noting who has the ability to walk away from these situations.
The refugees who piled into flimsy rubber boats in order to flee war-torn countries, sex slavery, and violent crimes couldn’t just walk away – they tried to, but as the film states 1 in 18 refugees die attempting to flee their countries through the Mediterranean. Terminally ill patients in End Game can walk away, but that is called death and apparently that’s too much for some moviegoers. People of color are often told to just walk away from racists, but sometimes they’re followed and beaten nearly to death like in Skin. Elderly people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general end-of-life issues sometimes do not know that there is something to walk away from, like the woman in the Animated short Late Afternoon, or the woman with a pile of regrets from the Live Action short Marguerite.
This is not to say that we as moviegoers should willingly put ourselves in distress. It is often said that we cannot have the capacity to care for others if we cannot care for ourselves, so it should be similarly true that if we are too shaken, sad, disturbed, etc, to fully comprehend a film then what’s the point?
However, whether or not we have the mental ability to parse through all the sadness in life, before we bail entirely we should put things in a little perspective: consider yourself lucky that you have the ability to walk away.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
As the Animated shorts began, the third of three blocks of films, I breathed a little sigh of relief. Perhaps I’ll finally get to laugh, see some funny talking animals, ooh and awe at gorgeous animation style, and finally see that adorable dumpling I’ve been patiently waiting for.
Animation has always been the best vehicle for a plot that wants to go into any direction it desires, as it is not bound by the limitations of the real, physical world that we see everyday. However, just because animation can depict things outside of the world as we know it, they are not free from depicting the hardships of human existence.
Despite these hardships – Animal Behaviour follows a group therapy session among quirky animals with various anxieties and issues; the dumpling in Bao comes to life to placate a mother with empty-nest syndrome; Late Afternoon depicts the struggles of Alzheimer’s; One Small Step addresses how we achieve our dreams even if we fail first; and Weekends takes you the surreal journey of a child attempting to process their parent’s divorce – there is always a happy ending in the world of animation.
After everything is said and done – after all the death, racism, refugees, and heartache – there are still good people. There are doctors who dedicate their lives to making death tolerable and comfortable. There are people who shun racist stereotypes in order to brave the choppy seas and save human lives. And these are just the people depicted in these documentaries. Once the lights go up, and we’re done wiping away the tears, we should go seek out these good people and thank them for being a light in the darkness. Then, maybe go make a short film about them.
More information on each short, and where to watch them, can be found on ShortsTV.