Our firm and perhaps cynical belief that confirmation bias motivates the average AMPAS voter’s decision process has served us well over the years. One rare exception was when we aligned ourselves with history and predicted that Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness would upset Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation at the 2012 Oscars. In the end, the latter’s welcome victory mostly corroborated film critic and unlikely awards pundit J. Hoberman’s tacit acknowledgement, in an article for the Los Angeles Times about Hollywood’s relationship to the Holocaust, that the only way for a film about the Holocaust told from the perspective of its victims to lose an Oscar is for it to compete against a film, like The Virgin Spring, whose breaking into the mainstream so clearly meant that it was destined for greatness.
On the surface, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah should have been a sure bet. Adam Benzine’s short observes Claude Lanzmann as he reminisces about the making and reception of Shoah, except its scope doesn’t extend far beyond confirming Lanzmann’s thesis that his nine-hour masterwork wasn’t so much about the Holocaust as it was the Holocaust. Famously not nominated for an Academy award, Shoah is today recognized as one of the towering works of the documentary canon, as attested to by such talking heads as critic Richard Brody and filmmaker Marcel Ophüls. Though the clips Benzine pulled from Lanzmann’s iconic work remind us of the epic’s bracing and enduring power, Spectres of the Shoah may be most successful at unintentionally illuminating the Academy’s problem with Lanzmann (he was also not nominated for The Last of the Unjust two years ago) by so ardently homing in on his sense of pomp and self-regard and ominously rendering the making of Shoah as a labyrinth of political intrigue.
Another HBO film, David Darg and Bryn Mooser’s Body Team 12, is tempting to dismiss for seeming to pack two separate documentaries—the Ebola crisis and the crusade of a lone female on an otherwise all-male crisis team—into a movie preview-sized vehicle, except the last time (read: last year) we discounted a film in this category for feeling reined in by the HBO house style it eventually won. But just as Crisis Hotline also won in the year of American Sniper, so did Smile Pinki win in the year of Slumdog Millionaire, meaning that if Body Team 12 can’t benefit from voters consciously or unconsciously associating it with a Best Picture candidate, it must also contend with the more topical moral and emotional biases stoked by its fellow nominees.
A victory for Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck’s Chau, Beyond the Lines, a wrenching and ultimately hopeful portrait of a teenager disabled by Agent Orange and who dreams of one day becoming an artist, wouldn’t surprise our awards gurus. Music by Prudence, Saving Face, and Inocente are among the recent winners to focus on down-and-out, and sometimes disfigured, individuals struggling to live normal lives or achieve artistic aims.
Except it, too, must compete against yet another HBO doc, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, about an attempted honor killing in Pakistan, that also brings to mind Saving Face, in addition to bravely grappling with a country’s subjugation of women. Perhaps there’s no more incendiary moment from any Oscar-nominated film this year than the documentary’s footage of a father utterly unrepentant behind bars as he hypocritically uses the Quran to justify his attempted murder of his daughter.
Sometimes, though, a film is so formally striking that it has the vanguard vote wrapped up by itself. And in year of #OscarsSoWhite, that Last Day of Freedom also comes with a #BlackLivesMatter subtext makes this one seem like a slam-dunk. Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s haunting portrait of Bill Babbitt reminiscing about the life and death of his brother Manny, who came back from two tours of Vietnam with mental issues, blisteringly attests to the inhumanity of the death penalty and the legal system’s racial bias, and through a dexterous use of animation that reflects Babbitt’s existential anguish. Of course, we’ve let our fondness for a nominee get the better of us in the past, and we can’t help but wonder which facet of the Academy’s white guilt will manifest itself more prominently in the end: the desire to make a villain out of a patriarchal Muslim or a hero out of an African-American who sees his complicated situation in shades of a gray.
Will Win: Last Day of Freedom
Could Win: A Girl in the River: The Price of Freedom
Should Win: Last Day of Freedom
Editor’s Note: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016, presented by ShortsHD, will open in theaters nationwide on January 30. For locations, click here.