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Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts Deal With Profound Crises of Humanity

It is Oscar weekend. The backlash against the Academy Awards for the extreme lack of diversity in nominees is how this year’s awards will be remembered. One could argue this is how the awards will be remembered for a second year in a row.

However, let’s focus on one awards category: Best Documentary Shorts.

Unlike the “Best Picture” nominees, the short documentaries nominated this year represent a diverse range of perspectives. Each film this year also deals with incredibly profound crises of humanity—the spread of Ebola in Liberia, war, PTSD, and the United States criminal punishment system, “honor killings” against women in Pakistan, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and genocide.

These short films are, in many ways, more compelling than the vast majority of the Best Picture nominees yet any person watching the Oscars on February 28, who gets up to use the bathroom or grab another drink, could easily miss this important category entirely. The Academy only spends a few minutes on these films during the awards show.

The following are reviews of all five of the “Best Documentary Shorts” nominees:

Body Team 12

Garmai Sumo works as a nurse for the Red Cross during the Ebola outbreak. She is a Liberian, and she is a mother. She finds it is her patriotic duty and obligation to be part of Body Team 12, which goes to homes to remove bodies of people who have died from Ebola. Fighting the spread of Ebola is about ensuring there is a future for Liberia.

Through Sumo’s perspective, the audience sees the reaction of Liberians as the bodies of loved ones are taken away from them. These people are deprived of the opportunity to bury them and that deeply incenses them. It inspires deadly threats against Body Team 12. The team has to employ conflict resolution to persuade family members to allow them to remove bodies without using violence against any Red Cross workers.

The way the story is told sometimes comes off as a bit of an infomercial for the Red Cross. That is not to say that Sumo’s story should not be told but that the way the filmmakers present her story leaves one wishing the perspective of the community members dealing with the Ebola epidemic could feature much more in the film. Still, undeniably, it is impressive to watch the courage of Sumo as she shows others she is not afraid to face down death during the outbreak.

Chau, Beyond The Lines

Both brutally devastating and incredibly inspiring, the film tells the story of Chau, a Vietnamese teen, who has birth defects from Agent Orange. He can walk, but he cannot stand up. He slides his leg along the floor to move. His arms are malformed too. He suffers from what the Vietnames government calls the “remnants” of war.

Chau is one of the lucky ones. The film shows him in a camp, where Agent Orange children are sent. The camp is hell. The nurses do not believe any of the children will ever amount to anything, and reject Chau’s dream to become an artist. But Chau leaves the camp to pursue his dream. He develops a method for painting with his mouth and produces amazing paintings. He becomes self-sufficient in ways most Vietnamese living with Agent Orange defects cannot.

Two to five million Vietnamese have been affected by this chemical, which to be clear is America’s fault. It took over 40 years to start any meaningful cleanup, which—again—is America’s fault. The U.S. government maintained there was no connection between Agent Orange and birth defects because the government didn’t want to admit it was responsible for generations of Vietnamese, who are so horrendously malformed.

Which is why this is such a compelling film. It manages to explore the devastating effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam and show that this remains a problem, even if the war was fought generations ago. It also warms the heart to see Chau living life to the fullest and achieving his dream. And, to some extent, this is what the U.S. government owes all children affected by Agent Orange: some kind of reparations so they can find happiness and be content just like Chau.

[*Note: As of February 27, “Chau” is available to watch instantly on Netflix.]

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah


Considered to be a masterpiece in film, “Shoah” is a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann took 12 years to make. It functions as an oral history of Nazi death camps told through survivors, witnesses, and even Nazi perpetrators secretly recorded by Lanzmann.

This short film is a reflection on the production of this film, and it features Lanzmann, who is now 90 years-old. The filmmakers both wish to reflect on “Shoah” itself and present Lanzmann’s perspective as he nears the end of his life. But nothing Lanzmann says can compare to what specifically relates to the production of “Shoah.” The filmmakers also open the film with quotes from past colleagues who think Lanzmann is a kind of megalomaniac, and why that is the case is not explored. Perhaps, it is intended to prejudice one’s view of Lanzmann throughout the film or help us understand what kind of a person one has to be to commit their life to a film project that takes 12 years.

The most memorable sequence involves unseen footage from a covert interview with a Nazi involved in exterminating Jewish people. Lanzmann reluctantly tells the story of what happened when the Nazi realized he was being covertly recorded. Lanzmann and a female assistant working with him were brutally beaten. Lanzmann was charged with “unauthorized use of the German airwaves” for recording an interview with a war criminal without his consent.

A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness

The story of Saba Qaiser is the most troublesome of all the films nominated. At 19 years-old, Saba marries a man from a family that her father and uncle believe is too lower class for her to wed. She is kidnapped. Her father and uncle beat her. She is shot in the face, but the shot misses ever so slightly, making it possible for her to live. She is put in a sack and thrown in a river and finds the courage to climb out of the river.

After surviving an “honor killing,” Saba receives immediate medical care and takes refuge with her husband’s family. Her own family wants nothing to do with her and believes she has brought them shame. Saba’s case moves through the Pakistani judicial system, and the manner in which patriarchy in Pakistani culture conspires to deprive women of justice is on full display. Saba is pressured into forgiving her father and uncle and abandoning a trial against them.

The director of this film, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, previously won an Oscar for her short, “Saving Face,” in 2012, which told another story of Pakistani women attacked with acid who obtain plastic surgery afterward. Just like that film, the story of Saba gives voice to women who have none because fundamentalism infects society. It shows how the male heads of family are able to get away with attempted murder and use fear to control women. Over a thousand women are killed in Pakistan in the name of “honor” each year. And, it is hugely inspiring when Saba says she wants to have a daughter, who she can teach to be brave and stand up for herself.

Last Day Of Freedom

Of the films in the category, “Last Day of Freedom” pushes aesthetic boundaries more than the others. It is told through animated sketches. The story of Manny, a black Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, is recounted entirely by his brother Bill. The filmmakers, however, animate him and create numerous possibilities for storytelling that go beyond putting a talking head on screen.

“Last Day of Freedom” is a multi-layered story. On one level, it is about a Vietnam veteran, who returned home, and how this increased his mental health issues. It explores what war did to transform him into a more erratic and self-destructive individual. On another level, Manny was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and executed in 1999. Racism contributed to the state of California’s decision to put him on death row instead of finding him the medical treatment and rehabilitation he needed.

More than a decade later, what happened to Bill’s brother is still very raw for him. He called the police after he realized his brother had done something horrible. He thought by giving police information about his brother he was going to help Manny. Bill is devastated to learn the judicial system will not work to heal Manny. It will only punish and put him to death, and the life-changing experience turns him against the death penalty.

[*Note: As of February 27, “Last Day of Freedom” is available to watch instantly on Netflix.]

Predicted Winner: “A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness”



Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."