As per usual, the Academy's selections for Best Documentary Short are a sobering bunch, but all fascinating each in their own ways. Most pundits have agreed on who the frontrunner is, but I wonder if it's more up in the air...
The most polished of the bunch is HBO's Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, in which Lanzmann reflects on the arduous production of his revered 10-hour opus, which the opening captions remind us is arguably the most important Holocaust film of all time. Seeing how it's about filmmaking, the Holocaust, and the toll an artist's work can take on them, it seems like natural catnip to Academy members.
But there is another artist's story to be found in Chau, beyond the lines, only this one has a more inspirational slant. It follows a Vietnamese teenager, born with physical deformities due to his mother's exposure to Agent Orange, as he adapts to society and pursues his dreams of becoming a painter and clothing designer. Chau's story leaves us on a hopeful note, while reminding us that many others like him will be forced to spend the entirety of their lives under specialized care. Under the old voting system, which saw entries like Smile Pinki, Music by Prudence, Strangers No More and Saving Face all take home the gold in succession, this may have been the one to beat.
The most formally unique of the lot in Last Day of Freedom, which builds upon the emotional testimony of Bill Babbitt -- whose brother Manny was given the death penalty after 20 years in prison -- with animated visuals. This visual abstraction may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it somehow manages to crystallize Babbitt's story, the underlying tragedy of which could apply to any Vietnam veteran who was abandoned by his country.
The shortest contestant is Body Team 12, which gives us a glimpse at the harrowing work done by Liberian red cross workers who must collect and cremate the bodies of Ebola victims as soon as possible, despite the protests of their grieving families. Keeping itself short was probably for the best, as there wasn't really enough material to fill a longer runtime. Even at only 13 minutes, it starts to feel repetitive, but some voters may find its brevity refreshing.
Rounding out the field is A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which decries the barbarism of honour killings against women in modern Pakistan, and how the clash between religious dogma and human rights continues to drag on. While the story focus is on a survivor, this is still no cheery film, and could be in tough against competition that stand out either for their brevity (Body Team 12), aesthetic (Last Day of Freedom), tone (Chau), or Academy-friendly subject matter (Claude Lanzmann).
Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Runner-up: Chau, beyond the lines
Should win: Last Day of Freedom