Film Review: 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary

Unlike the other Oscar shorts categories this year, women are represented in four of the five documentaries, as filmmakers and as subjects.
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All of the Oscar nominees in the documentary short category address pressing social issues in the United States—mental illness, heroin addiction, police brutality, life after incarceration, and aging—and they do so with great humanity. From a purely cinematic perspective, two are outstanding: Frank Stiefel’s Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (USA), a bio-doc about artist Mindy Alper, and Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e), which follows three dedicated public servants in Huntington, West Virginia.

In the latter, a 39-minute film about the heroin epidemic in that city of 96,000, the filmmaker follows Jan Rader, the first female fire department chief in West Virginia; the Honorable Patricia Keller, judge of “drug court,” and Necia Freeman, founder of the Brown Bag Ministry. In 2015, Huntington saw 27 overdoses in one two-month period; that same year, the city spent $100 million for emergency medical treatments and recovery programs.

Sheldon’s journalistic eye is unstinting, even if the title of her documentary leaves no doubt how she feels about her female subjects. Fly-on-the-wall footage of ambulance calls, frank discussions between addicts and the maternalistic judge, and Freeman’s openly evangelistic aims are all seamlessly edited to provide a portrait of America few big-city dwellers ever see. Sheldon celebrates the practical solutions these women offer to the “drug war,” that in Huntington does not look like a war at all.

Great editing is also a distinguishing quality of Stiefel’s touching portrait of New York City-born Alper, as is the filmmaker’s visual aesthetic. Alper, who works in paper mâché, oils and watercolor, has grappled with profound depression and anxiety nearly all of her life; in the course of the documentary, she suffers an emotional breakdown and at one point explains each of her half-dozen medications.

Alper speaks candidly about her abusive father and her indifferent mother, the root of much of her psychic pain, yet the film is also imbued with the filmmaker’s joy in her work. There is editorial distance, too, so perfectly calibrated that the viewer understands the work through Alper and not Stiefel—a rare thing in any biography.

A biographical portrait is also the aim of Kate Davis’ 31-minute Traffic Stop (HBO), which sets the record straight for a 26-year-old African-American dancer and elementary-school teacher. Breaion King’s 2015 encounter with an obviously out-of-control policeman, Bryan Richter, who still patrols the streets of Austin, Texas, haunts her to this day. As the documentary illustrates through footage from police cams of the traffic stop, Richter climbed inside King’s car and dragged her out of it. When she tried to pull away from him, he twice forced her to the ground. Davis uses her camera for what is perhaps the highest purpose of documentary filmmaking, to restore her subject’s humanity.

While Knife Skills, the story of a Cleveland restaurant staffed by formerly incarcerated men and women, might also be included in the same category, Thomas Lennon’s film is so poorly written and directed that it is difficult to remain engaged for the 40-minute run time. Sometimes divided by intertitles that are the names of subjects in the film, these sequences are necessarily intertwined with the narratives of other subjects; in the end, with the exception of a young woman arrested during the course of her employment, and an African-American man who is fired because of his argument with the manager, the short is a blur. Only midway through is it apparent that the new hires are enrolled in a training program from which they can be expelled. Who founded the restaurant or what led to the decision to hire ex-convicts is never adequately explained. 

Laura Checkoway’s 29-minute film Edith + Eddie is about an elderly, mixed-race couple who met when Edith, who is 95, placed a winning bet for 96-year-old Eddie. They split the prize money, and Eddie says it was love at first sight. The couple live in the house Edith has had for 30 years; her memory sometimes fails her, but she seems to take solace in Eddie’s company. The specter of a daughter’s greed and elder abuse is raised when Patricia, who is in charge of Edith’s estate, decides to separate the couple by moving her mother into her home. Neither Patricia nor the estate manager she hired is interviewed in the documentary, so there is little understanding of the economic matters at hand. While Edith + Eddie raises the issues families confront when caring for relatives who live into extreme old age, it leaves much to be desired, mainly because it advocates rather than fairly and objectively presenting the couple’s predicament. For instance, where Checkoway perceives wrongdoing, others will note the lingering concern that Eddie gambles.