Tonight the Music Box Theatre will screen all five of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts in two separate programs. The first, which contains the Polish character portrait Joanna and an American social-issue doc called Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press, screens at 7 PM (and repeats this coming Saturday and on Sunday 2/15 at noon). The second, which screens at 9 PM (and again this coming Sunday and on Saturday 2/14 at noon), features the remaining three: White Earth, a tone poem about oil-field laborers in North Dakota; The Reaper, a study of a stoic Mexican slaughterhouse worker; and Our Curse, another Polish submission, a personal essay by the parents of a child with a rare, life-threatening illness. I wasn’t able to preview Crisis Hotline, but I consider the other four to be worthy discussion-starters. Each one presents challenging ethical dilemmas, and at least two led me to question the ethics of their production. All four are unabashedly emotional (which is probably why they attracted the attention of Oscar voters), but the issues they raise with regards to form should make them especially compelling for documentary aficionados.
Our Curse is the most problematic of the shorts I previewed—I still haven’t decided whether I find it courageous or appalling. The director, Tomasz Sliwinski, is also one of the primary subjects, though he never addresses the audience directly, unlike most documentarians who “star” in their own films. When Sliwinski presents himself and his partner, Magda Heuckel (who collaborated on the cinematography and script), he employs static, presentational shots that encourage us to look at them like inhabitants of a human zoo. It’s quickly established that these stylish, middle-class twentysomethings are the new parents of a baby boy with a condition known as Ondine’s curse—he stops breathing whenever he falls asleep, meaning he’ll be tied to a ventilator for the rest of his life. The film presents the child’s condition in devastating, matter-of-fact shots, in between similar shots of Sliwinski and Heuckel drinking on their living room couch, looking understandably overwhelmed by their situation. (The visual likeness subtly equates the child’s struggle with that of the parents.) Over the course of the half-hour running time, though, they learn to accept their responsibility in stride.
Hip, friendly, and generally unremarkable, this couple wouldn’t be out of place in a Joe Swanberg movie, and like much of Swanberg’s work, Our Curse toes the line between self-documentation and self-validation. It’s encouraging to watch Sliwinski and Heuckel rise to the occasion—but then, what does it say about them as artists that they liken their victory as parents to their victory in completing the film? That the movie succeeded in putting me through the wringer only complicated my response. If it weren’t so sincere or direct, I’d probably find it irredeemable.
The subject of Joanna also has a life-threatening illness, and she’s also middle-class. (Watching this film so soon after Still Alice, I wondered: Are there any Oscar-winning movies about disease where the main character is impoverished?) Yet it’s both gentler and more ambiguous than Our Curse. Director Aneta Kopacz focuses on the subject’s relationship with her grade-school-aged son. Joanna is going to die of cancer within a few years, and she wants the boy to understand what it might be like to know her as an adult. In conversation with him, she’s remarkably candid, even brusque. She refuses to sugarcoat the situation for him, and (in the scenes we observe, anyway) he seems to grasp how grave it is. But throughout Kopacz asks us to ponder whether this is the right approach to take with a little boy.
This feels like a drama in the intimacy it establishes with the subjects, who are shown to be as eloquent as any fictional characters. Still I felt like a bit of a voyeur while I watched Joanna. Compared with a similar project like Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death, which considers the end of life within a larger social context, or Steve James’s Life Itself, which approaches the subject’s death as an entry point to his entire life and career, Kopacz’s documentary is focused almost exclusively on personal catharsis. I wonder what the son will make of this when he grows up—will he resent that the most difficult moments of his childhood became the stuff of classic movie uplift?
Of the four nominees I watched, White Earth works the hardest to be uplifting. Director J. Christian Jensen (who made this while attending Stanford University) frequently employs one of the most grating devices in contemporary independent cinema: the Terence Malick-derived montage of gorgeous landscapes and workaday detail, set to atmospheric music and an ineloquent kid delivering moony voiceover narration. What was beguiling in Days of Heaven has devolved, after decades of cheap imitations, into a kind of paint-by-numbers American romanticism. (The strategy has become so ubiquitous that it appeared even in the recent generic kid’s movie Earth to Echo.) When used indiscriminately, the device has the unfortunate effect of making underprivileged people seem like fetish objects for aesthetes, and so it goes in White Earth, which all but starts with a dreamy depiction of a middle-schooler who spends his days in a mobile home because his blue-collar father doesn’t send him to school.
Jensen clearly wants to inspire sympathy for his subjects, all of whom have traveled far to find work on the North Dakota oil fields. Mexican or American, everyone feels like a migrant worker here. The movie works as a social portrait in spite of its overdetermined poeticism, presenting telling details of the makeshift communities that have formed around the job opportunities. (Jesse Moss also considered this environment in the fine documentary feature The Overnighters.) At least one subject ponders the environmental costs of oil drilling, but Jensen is more concerned with the frontline workers’ direct experience. The Oscars tend to honor movies that take an apolitical approach to controversial issues, so I won’t be surprised if White Earth wins the award for Best Documentary Short. Whether you find it humane or shrewdly evasive will probably depend on how much you already know about the topics at hand.
The Reaper also centers on a working-poor subject, a man named Efrain who’s killed cows and bulls at a slaughterhouse for 25 years. Gabriel Serra, who directed, strives for a metaphysical perspective, having Efrain muse on matters of life and death over shots of cattle getting rounded up and killed. This feels in keeping, in both its tone and copious gore, with the hard-hitting social dramas to have come out of Mexico in recent years. I suspect that Arguello regards Efrain’s experience as a metaphor for what many Mexicans endure, as the ongoing cartel wars have produced a pervasive culture of death. This middle-aged man has learned to live amid death, developing a fatalist philosophy that allows him to leave his job unfazed. I don’t know if Arguello needed all those aestheticized shots of animal slaughter (a standby of student films for decades) to get that point across, but in light of the other shorts I previewed, that seems like a minor concern.