Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary
The title of “4.1 Miles” refers to the distance across the Aegean Sea from the coast of Turkey to the Greek isle of Lesbos — a span that hundreds of thousands of refugees have had to traverse in recent years during upheaval in the Middle East. A film crew from the New York Times follows a single boat captain as they troll the waters each day, rescuing people desperate enough to board flimsy inflatable craft or even fling their bodies into the water. There are some very powerful moments, especially trying to revive unconscious children. But the documentary feels too much like raw footage — looking over shoulders, confused scenes of massed bodies — than a structured exploration. Such an important subject demands more editing discipline.
This documentary from Netflix is a sobering look at end-of-life healthcare. We start off with an old woman in the ICU who cannot speak, but indicates with her hands that she wants her breathing tube removed, while the doctor explains this will mean her death. The film puts us up close and personal with the doctors, patients and their families facing these literally life-and-death decisions. How much choice should a person have to refuse medical care and end their own life? A stark exploration of a subject that every one of us will face at some point in our lives.
This simple but affecting story concerns an old violin that binds two lives. Joseph Feingold is a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw who had to leave behind his playing while he spent years in a Siberian labor camp. He obtained another violin in 1947 — buying it in a displaced person’s camp for a carton of cigarettes — but stopped playing a few years ago when advanced age made it too difficult. So he donates it to a New York City program for local music students, and it finds its way into the hands of Brianna, an ebullient girl who decides to prepare a special song just for her benefactor. The simple stories are often the best.
The White Helmets
The White Helmets are the unofficial brigade of Syrian volunteers who have made it their mission to rescue people during the incessant bombing that has plagued the war-torn country for the past few years. They’re the people who run into burning buildings and dig through mountains of debris to extract a trapped child. These self-effacing heroes describe their lives in their own words, and the film follows three in particular: Khalid, Abu and Mohammad (who used to be a rebel fighter until he saw the destruction they rained upon innocent civilians). This on-the-ground account shows the bombs falling, the terrible destruction and the human grace that happens in the aftermath.
Watani My Homeland
This moving documentary looks at the Syrian refugee crisis from the level of a single family. The filmmakers follow them for several years, starting when the father, Abu Ali, is a fighter with the rebels. He and his wife fret about what his role plays in the lives of their three children: Hammoudi, Helen and Sara. “I have sacrificed my children for the revolution,” he says. A year later he is captured by ISIS, and the mother loses hope of ever seeing him again. They eventually become refugees who are placed in the German town of Goslar, and we watch them assimilate into that community, the schools and street life. When Sara first sees a helicopter fly overheard, she flees because she assumes it has come to drop bombs on them. An insightful exploration of a topic from a human level.