Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts Shine a Spotlight on Syria

As someone with a short attention span who also embraces opportunities to learn more about the world, I have always appreciated the allure of documentary shorts. As usual, however, the 2017 crop of Academy Award nominees in the Documentary Shorts category fixate on weighty, worldwide topics: Three out of the five nominees deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by the violent rise of ISIS (“4.1 Miles,” “The White Helmets,” “Watani: My Homeland”), while a third spotlights end-of-life care (“Extremis”). Yet there is a common theme threaded throughout all of these docs, and that is the unwavering kindness of strangers, and the undaunted strength of the human spirit. In a cruel and chaotic world, that’s definitely something to root for.

The entire lineup of Oscar-nominated shorts will hit select theaters on Feb. 10, and the 2017 Academy Awards will air on Feb. 26. In the meantime, check out my thoughts on the nominees for the Documentary Shorts:

“4.1 Miles,” dir. Daphne Matziaraki (USA, 22 minutes)

4.1 miles: the distance across the Aegean Sea between the coast of Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. It is the distance that thousands of European migrants a day are sent across by smugglers, despite the often dangerous conditions. Greek filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki, in this unflinching documentary for the New York Times’s Op-Docs department, follows a local coast guard captain as he and his fellow citizens attempt to rescue the capsized refugees and bring them safely to shore.

Matziaraki herself occasionally pitches in to help hurl refugees onto the boat (a GoPro-type helmet-cam allows her the use of her hands), but she mostly hovers in the background to broadcast the chaos to the world, as the rocking of the boat creates a nauseating cinematographic experience that one can imagine is tenfold as excruciating in person. Matziaraki also does not shy away from disturbing images, as desperate dock workers and emergency personnel rush to resuscitate unconscious children and infants. As the coast guard captain says at the end of another day of search and rescue: there are no words.

“4.1 Miles” can be found on the New York Times website.

“Extremis,” dir. Dan Krauss (USA, 24 minutes)

Longtime documentary cinematographer Dan Krauss turns his camera to another place no one wants to look: a hospital wing where patients go to die. “Extremis” follows Dr. Jessica Zitter at the intensive care unit of Oakland, California’s Highland Hospital as she and her fellow specialists guide the families of their patients through the wrenching process of end-of-life care.

Four separate patients are briefly spotlighted, but the majority of the screen time is focused on the decision of whether or not to switch to a breathing tube for middle aged women Donna and Selena. Though I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of people would allow their most intimate and vulnerable moments to be caught on camera, watching these conversations unfold left me in awe of the medical professionals who deal with these tragedies every day – and the families who are left in the wake.

“Extremis” can be found on Netflix.

“Joe’s Violin,” dir. Kahane Cooperman (USA, 24 minutes)

Though the story of  “Joe’s Violin” begins with the Holocaust, it takes a decidedly more heartwarming turn from there. When 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold donates his 70-year-old violin to a drive that provides local public schools with used instruments, the fund’s directors take it upon themselves to ensure that Joe’s violin receives special care. They hone in on the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a school in the poorest congressional district in the nation, as the perfect home for Joe’s violin. The school’s principal proudly describes her low-income students as “survivors” – just like Joe.

The school’s music director chooses one particular student to wield Joe’s violin throughout her time at BGLI, and this student – 12-year-old Brianna – accepts the responsibility with tenderhearted joy. When the director hands over the instrument, there is not a dry eye in the room. Over the course of this all-too-brief documentary, it becomes clear that music is truly a magic that can bond the souls of generations.

Cooperman is a veteran producer of The Daily Show, and the professionalism shows: the camera cuts seamlessly between modern-day New York City and World War II-era Warsaw, and the deliberate contrast between the black-and-white photographs of Joe’s youth and the vibrant classrooms of Brianna’s school mark the significant passage of time – and the promise of a bright future.

Watch “Joe’s Violin” and learn more on the documentary’s website.

“The White Helmets,” dir. Orlando von Einsiedel (UK, 41 minutes)

“The situation is sad. Syria is sad.” Indeed, in the five years since the Syrian Civil War began, the bombings, displacements and terror seem to increase every day. But light can be found even – or perhaps especially – in the darkest of times, and Orlando von Einsiedel’s powerful, inspiring documentary shifts our gaze to the humanitarian group making a positive difference every day across war-torn Syria.

The Syrian Civil Defence organization, nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive headgear, consists of 2,900 civilians in 120 centers across the country who rush into the rubble of bombed sites to assist with search and rescue operations. To promote the White Helmets in the making of this documentary, British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel enlisted Khaleed Khateeb, a 21-year-old volunteer for the White Helmets and an aspiring photojournalist, to shoot on-the-ground video of his group’s relief efforts. The footage is unrelentingly gritty and terrifyingly real. But the civilians interviewed for the documentary keep morale up by attending month-long training sessions in Turkey to improve their methods, and by focusing on the lives saved rather than the lives lost. Amidst the inhumane devastation, the White Helmets are truly a source of unrelenting heroism.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix and support the group’s humanitarian efforts here.

“Watani: My Homeland,” dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen (UK, 39 minutes)

The second documentary centered around the Syrian conflict focuses in on a single family over a period of three tumultuous years. Abu Ali, Hala, and their four children – Hammoudi, Helen, Farah, and Sara – live right next door to a Syrian army base, surrounded by gunshots and shellings that characterize the daily lives of all Aleppo residents. But when Abu Ali is captured by ISIS, Hala makes the excruciating decision to emigrate with her four children from their homeland to Goslar, Germany, a town that welcomes the refugee family with open arms.

“Watani” is an astounding documentary in many respects, not least because it is mainly told by four children. Their matter-of-fact, sometimes even enthusiastic descriptions of life in Aleppo is startling, as is their ability to….well, act like normal children amid such terror. And while the family’s integration into Germany provides the promise for a better life, their journey is ultimately bittersweet. And perhaps that is the most they can hope for.

Find out more on the “Watani: My Homeland” website.

Editor’s Note: Several of the Oscar shorts are also discussed on episode 58 of CinemAddicts. Take a listen to the show below, which also features a review of the Istanbul set cat documentary Kedi: