The films nominated in the documentary short subject category are usually some of the least-watched of the Oscars. These films are hard to find and difficult to watch due to the nature of the subjects. The field this year was no exception in terms of subject matter. To obtain an idea of the level of hardship that these films cover, perhaps the least challenging subject involved displaced families enduring the harsh North Dakota winter. The rest of the films were all equally, if not more heart-wrenching in their own ways.
The film focusing on North Dakota is White Earth. It focuses on the lives of the families of different oil workers in North Dakota. The northern state undergoes a major oil boom that attracts workers by the thousands. This rapidly overpopulates the towns and forces people to spend the unforgiving winter in trailers or homeless. The film does not depict the difficulties facing the workers, however. That film, if done right, would have likely ended up as a Wages of Fear-type depiction of struggle against the elements. Instead, the filmmakers focused on the family members of the workers, most of whom have relocated from much warmer climates. White Earth accomplishes what it aims to, but one can’t help but wonder at what could have been if the film had focused on the lives of the men out in the oil fields for 18 hours a day in sub-zero temperatures.
Next is La Parka, out of Mexico. This film is the most strange of the five nominees, as it does the least to explain itself. With a running time of 29 mimutes, it takes six minutes for the first words of dialogue to be spoken. The first few minutes are simply filled with aesthetically pleasing shots of a slaughterhouse. Once the subject of the film finally begins talking, the viewer is very slowly clued in to the story of Efrain, a man who has been working in a slaughterhouse for the past 25 years. Despite the interesting subject matter, the viewer doesn’t get much substance from the short. While the shots are all very well done and create a permeating atmosphere of quiet dread and gloom, Efrain’s reflections on death and killing cows — Efrain estimates he has personally killed more than 4.5 million cows in his career — never really amount to much beyond tired banalities about death.
In Joanna, death is much more real. In one of two nominated Polish shorts, a woman who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness aims to record precious moments with her young son, Jas, before her time is up. Where La Parka attempts to wrestle with death by talking about it, Joanna does not address it — not directly, anyway. Instead, the film focuses on a mother who tries to muster up her obviously failing strength to enjoy time with her child. It presents a much more heartbreaking and powerful depiction. Though it is never addressed, death is always present in the scenes. However, Joanna remains defiant with her positivity and protects Jas from the pain she holds inside. It is a beautiful picture of love and certainly one of the most powerful shorts in this year’s field.
The other Polish entry is also powerful, but in a darker way. Our Curse focuses on the difficult road that director Tomasz Sliwinski and his wife walks; their infant son struggles with the rare and incurable congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, otherwise known as Ondine’s curse. A significant portion of the film consists of the couple speaking frankly with each other about their feelings about their young son’s ordeal. The conversations, understandably, are very bleak; however, the two are very candid about their feelings. They talk about resenting the child for the pain he causes and about their fears of him growing up to commit suicide. The couple doesn’t pull any punches, and it is their unflinching look at life coming apart that gives the film its strength. Unfortunately, the starkness that showcases the film’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: it looks like a series of home videos of a couple on the couch; there is not much artistry. Therefore, Our Curse suffers next to the films that manage to be powerful and artistic at the same time.
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is the best example of this balance. The film focuses on a call center in upstate New York dedicated to handle calls from veterans contemplating suicide. The film takes place entirely in the office; scenes jump from cubicle to cubicle and show different workers with their respective challenges. Compared to the strikingly frigid landscapes of North Dakota and the gory interiors of the slaughterhouse, office cubicles should not be able to compete in terms of interest and suspense. But, with a dynamic camera, Crisis Hotline manages to do just that. The cubicles seem to swallow the callers as they struggle to reach out over to the phone to the men suffering on the other side. With American Sniper recently re-sparking the conversation about the cost of war on a soldier, Crisis Hotline squarely hits a nerve. It, along with Joanna, manages to find the right balance between very difficult subject matter and artistry to present a powerful product. Joanna looks poised to win, but Crisis Hotline should be right on its heels.