Oscar short docs peer into painful, hopeful territory

Tom Long
The Detroit News

This year’s Oscar nominees for best short documentary are a diverse bunch, ranging from hopeful to despairing, and from engrossing to somewhat numbing.

Even the hopeful shorts are a bit dismaying. “Body Team 12” follows a body recovery team during the Ebola crisis in Monrovia, Liberia, focusing on the only woman working with the team. Wrapped in protective garments from head to toe, constantly being sprayed with disinfectant, the team goes from home to home collecting dead bodies to cart them off for cremation, as family members wail and neighbors protest.

Yet there’s a pride the workers take in knowing they’re battling for the safety of their country and likely saving the lives of relatives who would be infected by burying the dead. The film is short and to the point, and there’s no forgetting the pain of a mother watching her dead toddler being carried away and tossed in a truck.

Also hopeful, while still seriously unsettling, is “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” the story of a Vietnamese boy who was born terribly deformed after his mother was exposed to Agent Orange. The horror of the United States’ use of that chemical in the Vietnam War is forced upon the viewer as the camera follows Chau — who crawls about on his knees and has twisted hands — in the group home where he was raised with many children with far more nightmarish conditions.

It’s hard to watch, but the camera follows Chau over the years as he dreams of becoming an artist. He finally figures out how to paint with his teeth and becomes self-sufficient, an against-all-odds semi-success story. But it’s hard to forget all those other children.

The longest “short” doc is “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” a profile of the French journalist-turned filmmaker who spent 10 years making his 10-hour epic film “Shoah,” about the Holocaust. Despite the time taken, and the filmmaker’s celebrated friendships with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the film neither shows what was so special about “Shoah” or what was so special about Lanzmann. It feels like he deserved a more incisive, to-the-point portrait.

“Last Day of Freedom” could just as well have ended up among the Oscar-nominated animated shorts. It is a line drawn representation of a man named Bill Babbitt talking about how he turned his own brother, Manny, in for the murder of an elderly woman. Likely brain-damaged while young, Manny went off to fight in Vietnam and returned suffering severely from post traumatic stress disorder . He ended up on the streets, then eventually moved in with Bill. When Bill found evidence that Manny had been involved with the murder, he went to authorities hoping they could help.

Instead Manny was railroaded through a trial, represented by a drunk defense lawyer, and ended up with the death sentence. In “Last Day,” mental health issues, racism and injustice intersect to grave effect.

Somehow even more disheartening, and perhaps the most powerful film of the bunch, is “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” the story of Saba, a young Pakistani woman who was shot by her uncle and father and thrown into a river in a so-called “honor killing.” Saba had eloped with her boyfriend and gotten married.

Miraculously, Saba survived. But the insane social system she lives in found nothing wrong with the actions of her father and uncle — indeed, they gained prestige. And she, scarred both physically and emotionally, has to endure. Perhaps there’s hope in that, but it’s a bleak sort of hope.

Tom Long is the former film critic for The Detroit News.

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The 2015 Academy Award Nominated Documentary Shorts

at the Detroit Film Theatre

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

DFT entrance on John R

Info: dia.org

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