It’s about that time again. Scheduled at the end of March, the 94th Academy Awards is another dwindling ceremonial event where winners of certain categories will be not be announced via live telecast. This includes all of the short film categories — animated, live action, and documentary. However, here in this space, I’ll review all nominations and make them feel more tear-jerking special than knowing that Troy Kotsur is the second Deaf actor to be nominated, after CODA co-star Marlee Matlin in 1986. Starting Friday, March 11, the Coolidge Corner Theatre will be playing the documentary shorts program. Watching movies is fun, but betting during awards season is another kind where know-it-alls can get immersed and wrecked. Let’s get on it and argue!
While the Live Action short films this year hit on some heavy topics, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room left for the Documentary program to bring some anthropological reflections to the game (though a small fragment — four of the five nominations are from the US). It’d be interesting to see if documentaries can ever be light-hearted and without meaning, but the emotional investment would be little risk. The objective(s) of a documentary can be heavy-handed if done clunkily, but when done correctly in the show-not-tell fashion, that’s what separates the boys from the men. Let’s take a look at this year’s nominations for Best Documentary Short Film.
- Audible (dir. Matt Ogens and Geoff McLen | USA, 39 mins | trailer) – Members of the Maryland School for the Deaf high school football team balance the stakes of their last game season and the aftermath of losing a classmate.
- Lead Me Home (dir. Pedros Kos and Jon Shenk | USA, 39 mins | trailer) – Filmmakers capture the scope of homelessness occurring on the West Coast.
- The Queen of Basketball (dir. Ben Proudfoot | USA, 22 mins | full video) – Lusia Harris, one of the first prominent women’s basketball players, sits down to talk about her journey into sports stardom.
- Three Songs for Benazir (dir. Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei | Afghanistan, 22 mins | trailer) – Shaista, a young father, considers joining the Afghan army to support his family.
- When We Were Bullies (dir. Jay Rosenblatt | USA/Germany, 36 mins | trailer) – Meeting with members of his fifth-grade class, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt traces back to a group-involved bullying incident.
At the conclusion of this year’s shorts programs, I’d say that the Documentary program has the strongest contenders. Or rather, I enjoyed more of the nominations here than I did with the other programs, which does make it difficult to say which one has the highest chances of winning.
It might be the easiest to first talk about the only international film, Three Songs for Benazir. Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, we follow the daydreamer-in-reality Shaista, a young father betrothed to the quiet Benazir. He sells bricks by daytime and entertains the world around him with his own whimsical musings. It’s as if his love for the family he’s about to grow propels him to Cloud 9, so much so that we almost hold our hesitancy when he contemplates joining the army. Maybe his contagious joy makes us believe that it might be good for him. Married directors Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei capture a unique timeline from Shaista’s dreamy ways to the version of Shaista returning from the army. Other directors might have tried to enrich the story with more scenes, but Three Songs was concise in its point and, in that way, nailed it.
Ben Proudfoot of the New York Times returns to the nominations fold with The Queen of Basketball, a sit-down interview with Lusia Harris. Like his previous nominated film, it does come across as another coffee shop doc, but because it’s about women in sports, I had more of a personal interest in this. Harris has lived quite a life — representing the Olympics’ first women’s basketball team in 1976 and being the first woman to be drafted to the NBA are just a couple of landmark achievements. Towards the end, the film does focus on her contemplation of what life could have been like if she hadn’t receded from the spotlight to take care of herself and to start a family. For some reason, it ended on a weird sour-ish note that was most likely unintentional, which I blame on Proudfoot’s initial direction. But Harris, who sadly passed away this January, brings a humble livelihood that really makes this documentary more worthy than the topic.
I have the same complaint about Lead Me Home, which is an ambitious piece that attempts to capture and the ground-level and behind-closed-doors efforts in tackling homelessness. Covering three prominent cities on the West Coast, the film rightfully places the voices of unsheltered individuals at the front of the camera. However, the clips that show how city leaders and volunteers are helping gives a weird promotional vibe. Lead Me Home felt like it was trying to cover the entire situation of homelessness but came as directionless as an empty promise.
In my opinion, Audible and When We Were Bullies are the frontrunners. Another nomination in the sports genre, Audible follows members of a Deaf high school football team in Maryland. Multiple-time National Champs, the seniors in the team feel immense pressure to finish strong in their last season. However, they spare time from practice and Homecoming dance plans to share their feelings about a friend who they’ve lost to suicide. It takes all of the seriousness of season 1 of Cheer (which should come across as a compliment, because Cheer showcased the intensity of sports without compromise for nitpicky drama) and rolls it into an engaging and neat little short. On the flipside, When We Were Bullies represents a filmmaker’s reconciliation with an event that occurred when he was young: his class somehow decided to bully someone named Richard. Though it was a one-time incident, Rosenblatt’s connections with other classmates seem to spark memories about Richard that somehow pieces together a retrospective rationale, but not enough justification. This might be an unpopular take, but I didn’t care for the narrative.
WHAT SHOULD WIN: Three Songs for Benazir
WHAT WILL WIN: Audible
Though I loved seeing Harris on screen, I don’t think Proudfoot did enough with The Queen of Basketball to make it as memorable as it deserved to be. When We Were Bullies might have an equal footing with Audible in terms of audience likability, but to be honest, it would be a weird triumph if a story of a bully’s voice succeeds over the voices of those who were impacted by a bullied peer. Will voters be that prudent?
The 2022 Oscar-Nominated Documentary shorts open Friday, 3/11 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre (where you can still catch the live-action and animated programs!)