It’s about that time again — at least, I know so because the hourly dong just went off. The 95th Academy Awards is scheduled to run on March 12, which might not be enough time to prepare for the rich celebrities laughing at referential eat-the-rich jokes from the eat-the-rich movies (will there ever be enough time?). Starting Friday, February 17, the Coolidge Corner Theatre will be playing the short films in their designated categories (animated and live action on 2/17 and the documentary on 2/24). Watching movies is fun, but betting during awards season is another kind of fun where know-it-alls can get immersed and wrecked. Let’s get on it and argue!
While there is a clear winner for me in the Live Action category and a healthy selection of welcoming winners in the Animated category, picking a winner in the Documentary category is always a hard one. Even if there are ones that I’m more drawn to, the one’s that I’m not aren’t generally bad. There are documentaries that might choose the wrong side of the story, the wrong topic, the wrong sorts of people to see on screen — but other than those vital factors of storytelling, they aren’t generally bad. However, the ones that stand out — those are the ones to pay attention to. Let’s take a look at this year’s nominations for Best Documentary Short Film.
1. The Elephant Whisperers (dir. Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga | India, 40 min | trailer)
2. Haulout (dir. Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev | UK, 25 min | full video)
3. How Do You Measure a Year? (dir. Jay Rosenblatt | USA, 29 min | trailer)
4. The Martha Mitchell Effect (dir. Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison | USA, 40 min | trailer)
5. Stranger at the Gate (dir. Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones | USA, 29 min | full video)
First, a letter to Jay Rosenblatt: I’m sure you are a well-meant director. There must be skill, to some extent, that both of your Oscar-nominated shorts are about your life. Many documentaries have been made about celebrities but you, a man with a camera, have been able to captivate Oscar voters twice. Last year, it was your long-harbored guilt of a bullied classmate that created an intriguing mystery/memory game. This year, it is watching your daughter Ella grow up in front of the camera. From the moment she’s able to talk, you ask Ella a set of similar questions up until she turns 18: What do you want to be when you grow up? What are dreams? What is power? (At three years old, Ella gives an answer to the last question that might make our pop greats like Cardi B and Madonna beam.) How Do You Measure a Year? is probably one of the illuminating projects — for you. But man, I don’t know. Even Billie Eilish knew that doing one every year is too much. It’s not a you problem, it’s a “What are we doing here?” situation.
In sticking with the tough love, Stranger at the Gate is kinda hard to swallow. In Muncie, Indiana, a former Marine named Mac had devised a plan to bomb a local Islamic community center in 2009. As he was scoping out the area, members of the community notice him (“I remember thinking, ‘There’s something not right with this guy.'”). Still, they welcome him into the community where…I don’t know. There is a lot at play here. For the reader’s relief, Mac doesn’t end up hurting anyone. It’s not that that Mac is a bad apple to the core. He just lost his way when he came back to his country. In the beginning, his wife and daughter talk about Mac’s identity division: the loving, reliable stepfather and the surviving veteran with PTSD. To show Mac’s change of heart is a daring narrative, especially as a “show kindness to all” tactic is not a completely fair lesson to take home. (To be completely fair, I don’t think director Joshua Seftel is making grand-stroke comparisons to the likes of Dylann Roof.) So here I am: I don’t know! I can see why people would like this. It’s executive-produced by Malala Yousafzai and positively reviewed by Andrew Bujalski — two names I never thought would share the same sentence.
Next is the battle of the endangered tusks. The Elephant Whisperers and Haulout lay out the consequences of human development, hunting, and climate change by showing how they affect elephants and walruses, retrospectively. However, no other short films in this category have such a tonal clash than between these two. In The Elephant Whisperers, indigenous couple Bomman and Bellie raise two orphaned elephants at the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Tamil Nadu before releasing them in the wild. It almost feels like a gigantic effort to rescue elephants without a specific safety net. Who’s to say that these baby elephants will survive if they’re not being meticulously shampooed or fed coconut-based balls? It’s too dangerous to think about that, because for these forty minutes, life shall be and remain cute. But afterwards, in the shadowy doubts of being able to save this world, Haulout plays out like a muted horror. Set to nearly no dialogue, we follow a biologist’s annual tracking of the “haulout” in Siberia — a phenomenon where fatigued walruses are forced to find land because the blocks of ice they need to rest on between hunting and swimming have melted. I’m trying to avoid giving details because this is something to see rather than read about. The scene that I have raved about to others: the biologist, who lives in a sparse hut, wakes up in the pitch-black dark. We hear a low-grade moaning, as if he was accidentally swallowed by a whale. He makes his way to the door and opens to one of the most insane shots of the year.
The Martha Mitchell Effect is the year’s classic documentary short that can do no wrong (well, maybe for the Nixon fan club). I was shocked that Ben Proudfoot, who won last year with The Queen of Basketball, was not nominated for Mink!, a compelling tale about the first Asian-American woman elected to office. But we are given another glossy biopic: Martha Mitchell, the wife of U.S. Attorney General and Watergate conspirator John Mitchell. When she took a whiff of the shit that was going down in the White House starting in June 17, 1972, Martha decided that the truth needs to come out. Divorces happen, gaslighting occurs, kidnapping transpires — the life of a outspoken woman looking for justice in America, if I say so. There’s a sadness behind Mitchell’s life, especially as I believe her actions (and also icon status — just look at those glasses!) would have been more revered and welcomed had they happened today. However, she wins at one of the best biography testimonials: “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
WHAT SHOULD WIN: Haulout
WHAT WILL WIN: The Martha Mitchell Effect
It’s often said that horror movies don’t get much acclaim at awards ceremonies. While that is true, dread creeps up in different ways. Haulout quietly shares its confrontation of the real-world scaries by what we see and not hear, which would be a cool merit to win on. However, The Martha Mitchell Effect, which was named after the gaslighting technique in which people are told that they are delusional, is a staple for the unreliable narrative plots out there in the cinematic stratosphere. It is an entertaining documentary, but Hollywood lives for posthumous glory. If it does win, it’ll be a three-win streak for bio-documentary shorts. If they can’t handle the predictability, then watch for Stranger at the Gate.