Features, Film

Oscar Short Film Roundup: Best Documentary

A rundown of the nominated short films for the 96th Academy Awards

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Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó (2023) dir. Sean Wang and Sam Davis. USA, 17 mins.

It’s about that time again. The 96th Academy Awards are scheduled for March 10, which might be enough time for the 1,400 minutes that you will need to catch up with all of the Best Picture nominees (that’s similar to watching Poor Things nine times and stopping when your heart is too frail to take the dinner scene at Christopher Abbott’s house on the tenth go-around). But you will certainly have enough time to get cracking on this year’s nominations for the short film categories, which include animated, live action, and documentary. The Coolidge Corner Theatre is currently playing the nominated short films in all three designated categories. Watching movies is fun, but betting on winners during awards season is another kind of fun. Know-it-alls who might have watched Past Lives now aware that lifetimes could happen between two unknowing people can re-experience the immersive experience of getting wrecked. Let’s get on it and argue!

INTRODUCTION

One might share legitimate concerns about the dying art of print media, but the publishing companies still have a fighting spirit in them. Survival mode has resulted in podcasts and word game apps for relevance. They’re out there — and right here at the Oscars. NYT and The New Yorker are both familiar players in the Oscar games and return with their unblemished storytelling. After a bizarre nom-miss with MINK! last year, Ben Proudfoot also makes a comeback. Departing from his usual platform at NYT, The Last Repair Shop is distributed by the LA Times, an important distinction as the city is one of the last in America to fix students’ musical instruments at no cost. And of interest, MTV Documentary has rooted itself in two categories this year: The ABCs of Book Banning in the short format and The Eternal Memory in full-length.

When we get into the purpose of watching these documentaries, how does the experience change when we listen to a story that tells us about how life works? What about the audience’s efforts to choose what or how we take away from a story? The mass-media conglomerates are changing the literacy of the documentaries so that they are easily digestible, clean, and classy essentially how The Daily had changed the game for non-news-followers (including myself). This isn’t necessarily a reflection of doom, especially if we consider the visibility of this category (for what it’s worth, the three videos distributed by the publications are available to watch for free on YouTube, which is pretty much rare in any other category at the Oscars). At the very least, Best Documentary tends to hit more than miss. Let’s take a look at this year’s nomination for Best Documentary.

CONTENDERS

1) The ABCs of Book Banning (dir. Sheila Nevins and Trish Adlesic | USA, 27 mins | trailer) – Children have a thing or two to say about the legislation behind book-banning in public schools.

2) The Barber of Little Rock (dir. John Hoffman and Christine Turner | USA, 35 mins | full video) – The documentary follows Arlo Washington, a barber in Little Rock, who addresses the racial disparities in generational wealth by running a nonprofit bank.

3) Island in Between (dir. S. Leo Chiang and Jean Tsien | Taiwan, 20 mins | full video) – During the pandemic, filmmaker S. Leo Chiang reflects on the China-Taiwan relations when he returns to Taiwan where he grew up.

4) The Last Repair Shop (dir. Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers | USA, 39 mins | full video) – Musical instrument repair technicians in the Los Angeles area share how they got into music and their jobs.

5) Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó (dir. Sean Wang and Sam Davis | USA, 17 mins | trailer) – Filmmaker Sean Wang follows the domestic lifestyle of his paternal and maternal grandmothers, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó, who became best friends once their families merged.

The Barber of Little Rock (2023) dir. John Hoffman and Christine Turner. USA, 35 mins.

THOUGHTS

Island in Between was the weakest for me, but it’s far from being a bad one. The film opens with a striking aerial view of a tank half-sunk on a beach presumably on one of the Kinmen islands, the area between China and Taiwan that can be traveled by an half-hour ferry ride. The film explores the cultural and political differences of the two countries, where ethnic Chinese in Taiwan are still considered “in exile” by the mainland. The film was created in anticipation of the closely-followed China’s elections in 2024. Chiang’s narrative is a personal one, supported by others who are worried about a political strife turning to war, but the point feels like a small crease in the fold by the end.

The rest of the films are American-focused (a phenomenon which similarly occurred two years ago) and pinpoint to the changing national landscape, either at slow or fast speed. Even Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó, which is shot entirely in the interior of a home, is a reflection of two grandmothers who hadn’t left the household out of post-pandemic caution. But this one feels like handcrafted magic in a bottle; both grams are companions that earn their screen-time with geriatric joviality (“We’re only like this when you’re around!” they admit to Wang on camera) and a sort of peaceful acceptance on the life ahead. More than any of the others, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó felt like it had a director’s vision behind it.

Those who have seen Proudfoot’s other works will recognize the warm close-up shots of his subjects and the vivacious musical composition by Kris Bowers (with whom he had collaborated in the nominated A Concerto is a Conversation). In past years I had been on the disgruntled-train towards Proudfoot’s work, but I’ve learned to appreciate his specific admiration of the people he interviews — anecdotal quirks, giggling, and the near-curated accomplishments that tie the pieces together. The Last Repair Shop is on the same coin of Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó‘s captivation; by holding focus on the technicians, who range from stage musicians to those who happened to pick up on the trade of tuba-fixing, the story manages to stay within the extraordinary lives of regular people. If there is a current leader of the coffee shop docs, it’s Proudfoot.

I might have a prejudice against the “kids say the darndest things!” motif in political statements in order to emphasize an obvious moral, but The ABCs of Book Banning meets a nice balance of the simplicity of virtue and kids being pretty keen on life. The wildfire rate of banning books in the US is laughably dystopian, and despite the children’s pleas to at least have books at an appropriate reading level, I don’t foresee an extinguisher any time soon. The Barber of Little Rock also relies on a community’s reflection — this time on the systemic racism in financial institutions. Neighbors sharing their dreams to homeowning and barriers in debt forgiveness become fuel in Washington’s determination to build careers and foundations. It’s similar to Barbie in the sense that it’s a good introduction for most people, but I’m a bit skeptical on how well people will receive it.

The Last Repair Shop (2023) dir. Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. USA, 39 mins.

PREDICTIONS

WHAT SHOULD WIN: Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó or The Last Repair Shop

WHAT WILL WIN: The Last Repair Shop

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