Written by Patrick Hao
In this holistic look at the Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films of 2022 Patrick Hao provides a glimpse of distinctive qualities each title has and notable similarities and differences they share.
Directed by: Matthew Ogens
Distributed by: Netflix
“Audible” is the type of short that makes you wonder, why was it not just a feature film to begin with. Matthew Ogen’s film on the Maryland School for the Deaf football team has obvious parallels to “Friday Night Lights” in the way Ogens chooses to shoot the film. Using football in the high school as a backdrop, Ogens is able to explore themes of family trauma, class, race, anxiety, bullying, handicaps, deafness, and many other themes. Yet, in only 40 minutes, it is hard to think that any of these threads are ever explored to their full potential.
At the center of the film is Amaree McKenstry-Hall. It is no wonder that Ogens would choose to focus on him. He is handsome and charismatic – everything you want from a matinee ideal. His best friend had committed suicide and his football team had just lost their first game in several years. McKenstry-Hall is our cipher into their world, matched with Ogens’ keen ability with sound design to place the viewer in the perspectives of his subject.
Yet, despite the hallmarks of “Remember the Titans” or “Friday Night Lights,” the clichés do not become overbearing. Nor do the trauma porn elements that the film juggles ever feel exploitative. Rather, Ogens creates a sense of narrative conclusion with a keen sense that these people’s stories are going to continue forth, whether he is there to capture it or not.
“Lead Me Home“
Directed by: Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk
Distributed by: Netflix
Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk attempt to shine a spotlight on the homeless with their documentary short “Lead Me Home.” Filmed over three years in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, the duo interviews multiple people of the community to learn their stories in order to humanize a population of people that have often been dehumanized. This is certainly a goal worth making a documentary on, but “Lead Me Home” is the type of issues-driven documentary that seems produced to support a website rather than to teach or provide any insight on the structures that lead to such problems.
The montages and drone shots are often heavy. For a film whose goal was to humanize its subjects, there is a disconcerting sense that the filmmakers cared more about the aesthetic of social activism than the actual cause itself. The subjects interviewed seem to be carefully cultivated to elicit the pitying shake of the head from well-meaning viewers who will feel more than satisfied with watching a 40-minute film rather than committing to any social activism that requires time or effort. A montage set to sad music is just as dehumanizing as the numbered statistic at the end of the film. Bleak.
“Lead Me Home” Trailer
“Queen of Basketball“
Directed by: Ben Proudfoot
New York Times’ Op-Docs have been making some of the most consistently engaging documentary shorts in the past few years. “The Queen of Basketball” is no different. Following the typical NYT Op-Doc style, this is a talking head interview with the first woman who was ever drafted into the NBA, Luisa Harris, interspersed with footage of primary sources of her accomplishments. There is power in her story being told in her own words, especially knowing that Harris died in January 2022, just a few weeks before her film was going to be nominated for an Oscar. To watch her eyes, sparkle as she recounts her accomplishments as a multiple-time state champion and Olympic silver medalist, to the way she became downcast recounting her post-career struggles as she dealt with bipolar disorder. It becomes abundantly clear that despite all her accomplishments, there was still a glass ceiling that could only make her so successful. Yet, the joy Harris has in telling her tale is infectious.
Rest in peace.
“The Queen of Basketball” Short Film
“Three Songs for Benazir“
Directed by: Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei
Distributed by: Netflix
It has almost become a joke how much the documentary shorts category has become a category built solely on trauma porn. Every year there is a documentary about the plight in America and the plight of refugees in a foreign country. “Three Songs for Benazir” is the rare refugee documentary that does not entirely feed off the misery that is being displayed on the screen. A lot of that could be the Mirzaeis hyper-focus on Shaista, an Afghan man in a war displacement camp in Afghanistan looking for ways to make money to support his pregnant wife Benazir. In order to do so, the ultimate desire is to join the Afghan national army, both as a personal goal to prove himself, and the opportunities it will offer afterward.
With this comes the ever-looming threat of violence from the Taliban, to both Shaista and his family. The tenderness on display seems to be the real differentiator for “Three Songs for Benazir.” The keen ability to generate hope when everything can be so despairing.
“Three Songs for Benazir” Trailer
“When We Were Bullies“
Directed by: Jay Rosenblatt
Jay Rosenblatt’s “When We Were Bullies” might be my least favorite of any of the short nominees this year. This self-reflexive documentary follows Rosenblatt as he recounts a bullying incident that he and his schoolmates participated in. Feeling that ever-present guilt, Rosenblatt decides to find the school kids who participated. The victim rightfully chose to abstain. The result is a film that is a masturbatory exercise in self-flagellation. Rosenblatt creates a vague notion of unity in trauma, stating that everyone has their own experiences of traumatic bullying. But that empathy feels truly hollow as this film drags along its shaky premise. In the end, I do not quite understand why this film was made other than to make all the perpetrators sleep better at night. A better film would be more reflexive and more of a sociological study on the nature of bullying and its results. This film ends up just being a filmmaker’s attempt to create resonance from someone else’s worst day.
“When We Were Bullies” Trailer
“When We Were Bullies” will begin streaming on HBO Max on March 30th.