Tuesday, March 19, 2024

We Like Short Shorts: Reviewing the Oscar Documentary Short Films

by Rosalie Lewis
An upside to my perhaps unhealthy obsession with the Oscars is that for every less than great nominee I make myself watch (looking at you, Golda), I get to discover some pretty nifty short films. Not every year is a great year for the Oscar nominated short films, but there’s always at least a few worth tracking down. This year, I found the most rewarding viewing in the Documentary Short category—all of which were easily available online, as an added bonus.

I realize the Oscar ceremony is over and the winners have been declared, but if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to share these underseen gems with you!

The ABCs of Book Banning (available on Paramount+)
Runtime: 27 minutes
Directors: Sheila Nevins, Trish Adlesic, and Nazanet Habezghi
I love reading and libraries, so this was definitely catnip for me. The film is bookended by a 101-year-old woman named Grace Linn speaking in opposition of banning books at a school board meeting in Florida, and in between we meet children ranging from four years old to teenagers. These kids are sharing their perspectives on having their reading material restricted by schools and local activist groups, and it’s tough to argue with them unless you’re a dumb jerk which let’s face it, most of the people banning books are. The rising trend of challenging or banning books is upsetting and sad, especially when you find out the content of these supposedly objectionable books. Apparently kids shouldn’t learn about Anne Frank, Rosa Parks, two male penguins raising a baby penguin together, or loads of other things related to civil rights, gender equality, and other supposedly controversial topics.

I enjoyed the format of this film, and would happily watch a full length documentary on the subject. Interesting sidenote: Sheila Nevins deserves a documentary about her own history. At 84 years old, she has spent a considerable portion of her life and money producing and supporting documentary filmmaking and I love that she’s still finding topics to explore and share with the public.

The Barber of Little Rock (available on YouTube)
Runtime: 35 minutes
Directors: John Hoffman & Christine Turner
My favorite of the shorts tells the story of a man named Arlo Washington, who has devoted his life to addressing economic injustice. “We never got the 40 acres and a mule that was promised,” says Washington. “That’s the elephant in the room. And the fallout is what we see – a huge racial wealth gap, economic injustices, and not really an end to it in sight.” Not content to merely raise awareness, Washington decided to take matters into his own hands. First, he founded Washington Barber College and trained his students not just to cut hair but all about how to run a successful business and build up a clientele.

Later, when one of his own clients asked him for a personal loan to get through a hard time, he realized that traditional financial institutions didn’t really serve the needs of many people in his neighborhood. So he joined forces with others in the community, and opened a Community Development Financial Institution – using existing government grants, they extend loans from $200 - $10,000 to people that wouldn’t qualify using traditional credit scores. Sometimes these folks are in need of emergency funding due to things like medical care, house fires, or recently being incarcerated. Other times, they have been working for someone but want to branch out on their own and start a business for themselves.

“The idea of ownership is that you can determine what happens to it without having to ask for permission,” says a person being interviewed in the film. Arlo Washington wants to give people in his community that ownership and, by so doing, create generational wealth. In a world that often feels overwhelming, I found this man so inspiring because he’s actually doing something that is practical and meaningful to solve the problems around him. I’d watch a thousand stories like this one.

Island In Between (available on YouTube)
Runtime: 19 minutes
Director: S. Leo Chiang
This documentary is more of a video essay from the perspective of the filmmaker, who explains that he was “born in Taiwan, grew up in the United States, worked extensively in China, and now live in Taipei.” He focuses his storytelling on a group of islands that are part of Taiwan but are just a few miles off the coast of China, and feel caught out of time in the geopolitical tensions between the two countries. I will admit to knowing less than I should about this topic, but that’s what documentaries are for, right? I would have loved even more context and perhaps I will do some more research on my own, but this short film makes a big topic feel personal and tangible. It feels like the topics of immigration and jurisdiction are central to so many world conflicts right now, and at the end of the day the average person just wants to exist. Is that too much to ask?

The Last Repair Shop (available on YouTube)
Runtime: 39 minutes
Directors: Ben Proudfoot & Kris Bowers
Congratulations to the filmmakers and the people in this movie on their Oscar win! The film does a deep dive on a workshop where musical instruments are repaired on behalf of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which provides instruments to students free of charge. If you love music, or education, or just really compelling personal stories, then you’ll probably also love this film. There are interviews with students as well as the craftspeople who work on the instruments, sharing what music means to them and in some cases how they came to work at the shop. It’s quite touching, and makes me wish all kids had access to these kinds of arts programs.

The two directors have worked together before on another Oscar doc short, A Concerto is a Conversation. Additionally, the topic of music is especially important to Kris Bowers—he’s a musician whose credits include Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne as well as the scores for Bridgerton, King Richard, and The Color Purple.

Nai Nai and Wài Pó (available on Disney+)
Runtime: 17 minutes
Director: Sean Wang
This one is delightful, adorable, funny—all the things I hoped it would be when I read it was about the director’s two grandmothers who are best friends. Each of their husbands has passed away, so now they live together and take care of each other. They complain about each other’s farts, they make each other laugh, they read the newspaper, they dance, they reminisce. It’s impossible not to love these two amazing ladies, and I’m sure their grandson Sean feels very lucky to have them.

The doc was filmed during the pandemic, and apparently the director felt compelled to make it after reading headlines about hate crimes and bigotry against elderly Asian folks. He felt like a portrait of his grandmothers would help remind people to see the humanity in people who may be overlooked otherwise when passing on the street.

I have already watched this three times, and I may watch it again before long. It’s joyous and beautiful and makes me want to hug all my older relatives.

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