Eric Henderson has a theory that Extremis, in a year where La La Land is poised to at least match the all-time Oscar record for most wins, represents the only real option in this category for escapism. After all, Dan Krauss's documentary depicts people dying on a natural timetable according to the laws of nature, not before their time as the result of lawless, unjust regimes. I watched a loved one die two weeks ago, so this thin but wrenching film about end-of-life care hit me like a truck. But whatever agony I've felt in the wake of my loss, not to mention in response to our country's seeming embrace of geopolitical suicide, I'm nowhere near the point of reaching whatever level of Dadaist despair this protester from the woman's march in D.C. arrived at while Trump was being inaugurated. I would like to think that enough Oscar voters are still happy enough to be alive that they would prefer to embrace the message of hope advanced by some of the other shorts.
Kahane Corn and Raphaela Neihausen's Joe's Violin is certainly one such short, and normally we could have called it the likely victor given that it hits two of Oscar's favorite sweet spots: the Holocaust and young down-and-out artists. How a violin passes from the hands of a Holocaust survivor to a young schoolgirl in the Bronx attests to a message of solidarity that sees beyond color and culture. The short comprehends the powerful mission of the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, and without playing like an advertisement for the non-profit, but 12-year-old Bronx schoolgirl Brianna Perez is kept at arm's length from us, at least in comparison to 91-year-old Joe Feingold.
Flip a coin to choose between Orlando von Einsiedel's The White Helmets and Marcel Mettelsiefen's Watani.
Daphne Matziaraki's 4.1 Miles, about migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, is the least overtly political of the bunch. Cannily, and with rare exception, the film's anxious camera remains fixed on the migrants, some unconscious, as they're pulled onto boats by fisherman and other aid workers. This isn't the story of white saviors, or the remove that exists between refugees and native islanders (the subject of Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea, which is nominated in the feature documentary category), but of the people streaming toward the freedom that only immigration policies that aren't based on fear can offer to the most helpless citizens of our world.
With potentially half of this year's Academy Award statuettes poised to go to a film about two young Angelinos dancing their way toward the wonderland of their dreams, Oscar pools are likely to be decided by below-the-line categories such as this, and our best advice to you is: flip a coin to choose between Orlando von Einsiedel's The White Helmets and Marcel Mettelsiefen's Watani: My Homeland, both films about Syrians simply trying to stay alive. One is the story of the anti-Assad political organization working in Aleppo to save individuals affected by Russia's military intervention in Syria, and the other is the story of one Syrian family who resettles in Germany shortly after their paterfamilias is kidnapped by ISIS.
As Watani, in which refugees fully embrace Western culture, is likely to register as an advertisement in support of the claim that Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world, it's the one most likely to trigger the Trump voter. So if it comes down to which short invites the most conservative AMPAS voter to think about those displaced by war in third-world countries as human beings, and without making said voter spontaneously combust out of cognitive dissonance, then The White Helmets, which features gut-wrenching footage of the White Helmets saving Aleppo's “miracle child” from a collapsed building in 2016, is your winner. And that Raed Saleh, leader of the White Helmets, and the film's cinematographer, both Syrian nationals, have been prevented from attending the Oscar ceremony because of Trump's Muslim ban, this is another occasion for Hollywood to hand out an award as a referendum against our president's noxious nationalist agenda.
Will Win: The White Helmets
Could Win: Watani: My Homeland
Should Win: Watani: My Homeland or The White Helmets