Marshall Curry's A Night at the Garden, and films from The Guardian Docs and New York Times Op-Docs make shortlist
In February 1939, 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden--not for a hockey game or concert, but to join in a Nazi rally. That shocking event, long since forgotten, is the subject of Marshall Curry's short documentary A Night at the Garden.
The film, constructed entirely of archival footage from the rally, made the Oscar shortlist of 10 documentary shorts revealed on Monday. Curry, a two-time Academy Award nominee, clearly sees the relevance of that distant event to the America of today.
"We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people," the director said in an interview with Field of Vision, the site that posted the short. "But I think most humans have dark passions inside us, waiting to be stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean, who can convince us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect for others are just ridiculous political correctness."
Joining Curry's film on the shortlist is another documentary with historical dimensions. Women of the Gulag, directed by Marianna Yarovskaya. It centers on the memories of several women in their 80s and 90s who were dispatched to Soviet forced labor camps decades earlier, during the Stalin era. Millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, were confined in the camps and countless numbers perished under brutal conditions.
"Our 'last witness’s' stories range from the horrific to the uplifting," the director writes. "Conservatory student, Vera, [was] arrested for playing 'German hymns'...Ksenia live[d] in a pit covered by branches...For most, the telling of their stories was cathartic. Adile, in her 90s, put it this way: 'I lived so long to be able to finally tell the truth.'"
Also making the shortlist is the innovative and cinematic documentary short Black Sheep, which recounts the experience of Cornelius Walker, a young British man of Nigerian descent. When Cornelius was 11 his mother took him away from London to live in another town after a boy of Walker's age and ethnicity was killed near their neighborhood. But seeking a safer place to live brought unintended consequences.
"Cornelius suddenly found himself living on a white estate run by racists," the Guardian writes on its website, where the film is posted. "But rather than fight them, Cornelius decided to become more like the people who hated him. They became his family and kept him safe. And in return, Cornelius became submerged in a culture of violence and hatred."
The film features Walker speaking directly into camera as he reflects on what he went through 15 years earlier. Non-professional actors were hired to recreate key scenes from his life.
Lifeboat, from RYOT Films, puts a human face on the extraordinary refugee crisis that has seen tens of thousands of people flee North Africa and the Middle East.
"Lifeboat bears witness to refugees desperate enough to risk their lives in rubber boats leaving Libya in the middle of the night, despite a high probability of drowning," RYOT says of the film directed by Skye Fitzgerald. "With few resources but certain that civil society must intervene, volunteers from a German non-profit risk the waves of the Mediterranean to pluck refugees from sinking rafts."
Joshua Bennett and Julia Schatz-Preston directed Los Comandos, a shortlisted doc that focuses on a group of emergency responders in El Salvador, who bear some similarity to the famed White Helmets in Syria.
"Violence has overrun El Salvador. The emergency medical unit Los Comandos de Salvamento is standing up to the gangs’ reign of terror," states the film's website. "Sixteen-year-old Mimi is a dedicated Comando caught in the cross hairs. When her fellow Comando, 14-year-old Erick, is gunned down while serving, she faces pressure to flee El Salvador and head north."
Period. End of Sentence, from director Rayka Zehtabchi, reveals how women in a village in Delhi, India are combatting a taboo about menstruation that has negatively impacted an untold number of people.
"Without sanitary products or proper education about their bodies, millions of girls end up missing school or dropping out entirely once they begin their periods," notes a press release about the film. "But in a modest room in a rural Indian village, local women unpack wooden crates filled with the donated supplies they need to produce and sell thousands of pads to local women in an effort to improve feminine hygiene, thus launching The Pad Project. This micro-business in a box stimulates the economy of individuals in the village and empowers women and girls to feel comfortable with their bodies and to stay in school past puberty."
A couple of Netflix shorts made the Oscar shortlist, among them End Game, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
"A moving film about the passage from life to death," writes DOC NYC, which showcased the film, "End Game is a portrait of the last days of those in palliative care in two San Francisco Bay Area medical facilities pioneering new paradigms for end-of-life decisions."
Netflix also scored with Zion, the story of Zion Clark, a young man born without legs. He was subjected to abuse in a series of foster homes, but found fulfillment and camaraderie when he joined his middle school's wrestling team. The film won Best Documentary Short at the IDA Awards earlier this month.
"We like to say it's a sports doc that's really about growing up," director Floyd Russ tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "Zion didn't have confidence, no belief in himself. And that's what wrestling gave him."
63 Boycott looks back more than 50 years to a massive protest in Chicago, where more than 250,000 students demonstrated against racial segregation.
"Many marched through the city calling for the resignation of School Superintendent Benjamin Willis, who placed trailers, dubbed ‘Willis Wagons,’ on playgrounds and parking lots of overcrowded black schools rather than let them enroll in nearby white schools," according to the film's website.
Gordon Quinn, founder of Kartemquin Films, directed the short.
"’63 Boycott connects the forgotten story of one of the largest northern civil rights demonstrations to contemporary issues around race, education, school closings, and youth activism."
Easily the most provocatively-titled short to make the Oscar doc shortlist is My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes, directed by Charlie Tyrell, part of the New York Times Op-Docs series. Along with Black Sheep, it's also one of the most innovative documentaries of the year, making novel use of stop-motion animation in a nonfiction context.
In the touching film, Tyrell tries to come to terms with who his late father was and why their relationship had been less than satisfactory. You can watch the short here:
The 10 shortlisted documentary shorts will be trimmed to a final five contenders when the Oscar nominations are revealed on January 22.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.