This year’s crop of Oscar-nominated documentary short films is exceptionally good so it’s a good moment to note that ShortsHD, a shorts movie channel, is bringing the films to theaters now as well as offering them online on February 21 as a group. True, you can currently catch most of these films fairly easily — Extremis and The White Helmets are on Netflix, Joe’s Violin is streaming via The New Yorker and 4.1 Miles is on The New York Times. The only one that isn’t accessible is Watani: My Homeland, which happens to be the best of the five in my opinion, so it alone is worth the download or trip to the theater.
I asked ShortsHD CEO Carter Pilcher a few questions about the shorts, which follow my brief reviews of the films, all of which are A-list.
Extremis (24 minutes)
Director: Dan Krauss
Staring death in its gaunt, infected, tube-riddled face, director Dan Krauss takes us into the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, where terminally ill patients, their families, and their doctors hash out whether to artificially extend life or let go. Tough stuff but astonishingly honest and necessary.
4.1 Miles (26 minutes)
Director: Daphne Matziaraki
The best films about human despair need a hero to get us through to the end. Here, it’s a Greek coast guard captain who rescues refugees fleeing the Middle East and traveling the eponymous distance from the coast of Turkey to the island of Lesbos. I’d put this down as a must-see for anyone considering the merits of stopping refugees from entering our borders.
Joe’s Violin (24 minutes)
Director: Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
If there’s a feel-good movie in the bunch, this is the one, and I don’t say that disparagingly about this beautiful film. A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor offers his violin, which he purchased at the end of the war, to an New York City musical instrument drive. The instrument ends up in the hands of a girl in the Bronx. She plays it. Tears ensue.
Watani: My Homeland (40 minutes)
Directors: Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis
When a commander in the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo is abducted and probably killed by ISIS, his family flees to Germany in a years-long trek. This film is also a must-see as it brings its audience from the fighting in Syria to the seemingly happy conclusion of a humanitarian refugee crisis. The whole nation of Germany is the hero here. Oh, how the tables have turned. The pendulum swings, indeed.
The White Helmets (41 minutes)
Directors: Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Heroes arise again, here in this depiction of war-torn Syria, where civilian volunteers known as “the white helmets” pull bombing victims from the rubble. They have saved more than 60,000 lives since 2013, and many have died in the process. Von Einsiedel and Natasegara follow their Oscar-nominated Virunga with similar cinematic panache and depth of heart.
The documentary short slate is particularly strong this year. What do you account for that? Do you think this is an ongoing trend?
Pilcher: Documentary shorts have long been popular with a dedicated audience, but this year’s documentary short nominees have a much broader appeal. Interestingly, four of the nominees were produced or are distributed by broad-based audience platforms (New York Times, Netflix, Condé Nast). Clearly, these platforms are building interest and audiences well-beyond the traditional boundaries of the dedicated documentary audience, and thus have bigger budgets and cover more accessible topics.
In my opinion, it almost competes with the feature documentary nominee slate. What do you think?
Pilcher: Definitely agree! The short documentaries are “of the moment” and provide amazing insight into a wide range of issues: life and death, the Syrian crisis and refugee movements to name a few. Not only are the short documentaries here and now, they are of a much more digestible length for a broader audience.
You release the shorts in the theaters but that seems to go against the dominant trend of people watching documentaries, films, shorts whatever on their phones. Who are these people going to see your shorts in the theaters? I assume it skews older…
Pilcher: The Oscar Shorts draw big crowds across the country, from young and old audiences. As you know, cinema admissions are growing in all categories – a night out to watch great films in a movie theatre is still a special event, even if we can consume lots of other content on our phones. Going to a movie theatre to watch the Oscar-nominated shorts is not Russian Roulette – these are the best short movies from around the world made this year. And audiences know it.
When people see the shorts all together — either in theaters or on demand — how does it diminish or heighten the appreciation of each particular film?
Pilcher: Seeing the Oscar Shorts in movie theaters has grown in popularity as audiences get a chance to experience for themselves the fun of a “mini film festival” of great movies all in 90 minutes. The films are such a tour de force that seeing them together gives a heightened appreciation for the unique and different approach each filmmaker has taken to telling his or her story. For instance, even though several of the documentary shorts touch on refugee and immigration issues, they each come from such a different perspective and a different aspect of this crisis that after watching all the nominees, one feels that it would be incomplete not to see them all together.