It’s decision time and our gurus of gold bring you tidings of great confusion. This year’s nominees for documentary short are all, almost conspicuously, united by their deployment of the canniest of distancing effects. They’re also among the most galvanizing selections we’ve ever had the pleasure of screening—if pleasure is the word to describe how they’ve harpooned our hearts, minds, and seemingly impenetrable tear ducts. Just about the only thing we can agree on is that, as a piece of filmmaking, Gabriel Serra’s The Reaper has no equal here, but that a victory for this haunting, expressionistic, and deeply graphic articulation of a slaughterhouse worker’s relationship to death seems impossible in a world where Richard Linklater is probably the only AMPAS member to have ever made it through the entirety of Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons without covering his eyes.
White Earth stands out here for conveying the pull that the oil industry has on the residents of the titular North Dakota town as abstraction. Through the film’s impressionistic cinematography and the reverie-like narration of its subjects, from young children to an immigrant mother, the oil industry’s effect on land and people is conveyed as an eerie siren’s call. But it’s this willful defiance of the conventions of activist doc-making that won’t win it the favors of the Academy’s stodgier voters. A different kind of defiance may also damn Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which unusually, if effectively, gives shape to the emotional toll of war entirely through the empathetic faces and voices of hotline operators who try to prevent American war veterans from killing themselves. But the pulse-quickening manner with which these already fraught conversations are framed and scored gives this procedural-like doc the off-putting feel of a thriller.
Which leaves the two Polish shorts in the category, both extraordinary studies of hope and resilience that couldn’t be more different in approach. Right down to its devastating finale, Joanna refuses to sentimentalize death, choosing to memorialize its titular subject by lingering on the most mundane of mother-son moments with such a marked lack of affectation that they begin to resonate almost ethereally. But it may be too abstract in its methods to persevere over Our Curse. Following the clap of his own hands-as-slate-board, director Tomasz Sliwinski teases audiences by dancing around the exact nature of the titular curse that’s turned him and his wife into ghosts of their former selves, only to then disturb us with a minutes-on-end shot of their child, who suffers from a rare respiratory disorder, struggling to breathe. Sliwinski punches us in the gut only to then, via his wife lovingly nursing their child, exhilaratingly key us into the process by which they learned to transcend their agony and live for the future.
Will Win: Our Curse
Could Win: Joanna
Should Win: Joanna
Editor’s Note: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015, presented by ShortsHD, will open in theaters nationwide on January 30. For locations, click here.