The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, Ranked

While I’m not a huge fan of short films, I always look forward to the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. There are so many things to learn, know and understand in this world, yet many of those things do not require feature-length films made about them. Such is the case with the five below, all of which are interesting in their own way. Of course, there can only be one #1.

5. Last Day of Freedom

Told from the perspective of Bill Babbitt, who realized that his brother Manny—an African-American who suffered from PTSD after two tours in Vietnam–had committed murder, and who subsequently made the decision to turn him in, Last Day of Freedom explores the premise of the death penalty, race and more in the United States. Bill’s story is an interesting and ultimately tragic one, horribly marred by the obnoxious decision to present it as an animated film.

As a podcast with no visual elements, Last Day of Freedom could have worked, but the animated approach is distracting, unnecessary and unfortunately too damaging to overcome.

4. Clause Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Shoah, a 10-hour documentary opus about the Holocaust, has earned filmmaker Clause Lanzmann plaudits. In this short documentary (one of three HBO documentaries nominated in this category) about the the long documentary, Lanzmann reflects on the challenges of making the film—it took him 15 years to finish—and its lasting effect, among other things.

While fine in its own right, this documentary really just makes you want to watch Shoah—and is only as fascinating as the source material it’s about. Lanzmann offers up some interesting stories, but Spectres of the Shoah fails to stand on its own.

3. Chau, Beyond the Lines

Agent Orange has had a criminal effect on a generation of children in Vietnam—the chemical dropped by American forces during the Vietnam War has led to horrible birth defects and mutations. Chau, Beyond the Lines goes inside one of the care centers for these children and focuses on a teenager who is determined to live an independent life as an artist, despite his physical limitations (he has limited strength in his arms and legs).

Uplifting and entertaining thanks to its charismatic subject, Chau, Beyond the Lines is the perfect example of why documentary shorts exist: there isn’t enough here for a feature-length movie, but just the right amount for an interesting half an hour.

2. Body Team 12

And you think you have a shitty job. This 13-minute HBO doc follows Garmai Sumo, the only female member of Body Team 12, one of many Liberian teams responsible for collecting and disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims. Her job is depressing and dangerous, which means it makes for a fascinating documentary.

1. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

This Pakistani documentary, also an HBO production, is about the disturbing circumstances surrounding an attempted honor killing. After 18-year-old Saba elopes with a young man from a poorer family than hers, her father and uncle shoot her in the head and throws her in the river. She survives, but that’s only the beginning of her ordeal.

The subject matter really speaks for itself—A Girl in the River is one of the more disturbing, upsetting and messed up documentaries you’ll see all year.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Awards & Oscars, Documentaries