Review: Oscar-nominated doc shorts deal with crisis

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The world’s refugee crisis looms over this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary short films, with four of the five movies nominated dealing with the subject either tangentially or straight on. The remaining nominee deals with impending death, so this isn’t exactly a laff-a-thon.

“The Academy Award Nominated Documentary Short Films” is, however, a desperately timely and moving mix of perspectives. And there actually is warmth and inspiration in most of these films, even as they are overwhelmed with darkness.

The non-refugee film is “Extremis,” a look at doctors and families dealing with end-of-life issues for patients. Is it time to take mom off the respirator, even though she may not be able to breathe on her own? Is this patient fully brain-dead or is there still a chance they will miraculously recover? This Netflix documentary looks at people facing difficult, often final questions. There are, of course, no easy answers.

The most hopeful of the refugee stories is “Joe’s Violin.” Joe was a refugee from a Siberian work camp. Liberated following World War II, the first thing Joe bought after being set free was a violin, which he brought with him when he moved to the United States. Now too old to play, Joe decides to donate his violin to an inner-city school in New York City. Loveliness ensues.

Loveliness is in more scarce supply in the other short docs. They follow the cause of the refugee crisis, the dangers involved in fleeing and even the worries that attend a successful escape.

In Netflix’s “The White Helmets” the camera tracks volunteers in Syria who race to bombing sites in hopes of finding survivors. Digging desperately through rubble these men — former blacksmiths, tailors, whatever — save thousands of lives a year while risking, and often losing, their own. Even when they’re sent off for training in Turkey, word of the daily body count and bombing raids is everywhere.

But what of those who try to get out? In “4.1 Miles” — the distance by sea from the coast of Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos — the Greek Coast Guard is overwhelmed by refugees so desperate for escape that they crowd onto flimsy rubber boats and set off for freedom, or at least a better life. Many don’t make it, many do: from 2015-2016 some 600,000 refugees arrived on the tiny island, coming in swarms of tragedy and need.

Finally, in “Watani: My Homeland” we meet a Syrian family in 2013, living in an abandoned apartment in the center of Aleppo. The father is an opposition force leader, the kids wander among the rubble. The camera returns in 2014 as the family is fleeing to Turkey with a dream of eventually making it to Germany.

Even when they make it to comparative safety, the youngest daughter screams and ducks when a jet plane whooshes overhead; she assumes all jets are out to bomb her. Who are we to close our doors to children like this? Honestly, who are we?

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.


‘The Academy Award Nominated Documentary Short Films’


Not rated

Running time: 154 minutes

At The Detroit Film Theatre