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Documentary Short Film Film Reviews The Oscars 2024 Uncategorized

The Oscars 2024: Documentary Short Film Nominees. A collage of beautiful realities

The nominees in the Documentary Short Film category of the 2024 Oscars couldn’t be more different. Some of them inspire, some expose, some entertain and some, all of the above. They make you laugh, cry and rage in anger at the injustice. All in all, they show the good and bad faces of life, adding to your journey with their own stories. Sharing unforgettable knowledge and experiences.

If you are curious about them and want to know a bit more about their focus and perspective, go right ahead and dive into the following reviews and, as always, don’t hesitate to share your opinions with me! 😉

Island in Between

  • Year of production: 2023
  • Director: S. Leo Chiang.
  • Producer: Yulan Chang, S. Leo Chiang, Jean Tsien and Yorke Wu.

Synopsis

S. Leo Chiang reflects on the political crossroads between China, Taiwan and US while showing bits of his travels between the three territories.

Still from Island in Between (S. Leo Chiang, 2023). Author: Yorke Wu.

Review

Island in Between shows a Taiwanese-born man’s point of view of the political and military issues that Mainland China, Taiwan and the US have. He shows how that affects the citizens of the first two areas. It is a visual essay on the senselessness of wars. Exposing how both sides fight for a few powerful men’s interests, and it is the civilians that end up dying or losing their family and friends.

After establishing some brief and somewhat lacking context, he proceeds to show the current situation and its daily repercussions. He exposes the constant use of propaganda to brainwash the inhabitants of both sides to make them turn on each other, unknowingly basing their principles and prejudice on lies. Tactics like blasting a Taiwanese singer’s songs for Chinese residents to hear. Or making Taiwanese vaccinated people re-vaccinate in China because they do not recognise their vaccines. These are seen as power moves, when actually, they are but the whims of immature people with a power complex.

Canons pointed at China. Source: Island in Between (S. Leo Chiang, 2023).

The film showcases these examples along some of the personal experiences of the filmmaker. This combination makes a point of how silly and easily fixable through dialogue the conflict is. The problem that seems to be slowly escalating would not exist if only the citizens could choose. The analogy used in Island in Between is absolutely marvellous: US, Taiwan and China act like divorced parents who fight because they think they know what’s best for their kids (in this case, inhabitants), but do not bother asking them what they want. Yet another example of people suffering for no reason, presented with care and clean aesthetics, making this piece both beautiful and full of meaning.

Nai Nai & Wài Pó

  • Year of production: 2023
  • Director: Sean Wang.
  • Producer: Sam A. Davis and Malcolm Pullinger.

Synopsis

Sean Wang goes to his grandmother’s house to record a piece of their lives and thoughts.

Wang’s grandmothers. Source: Nai Nai & Wài Pó (Sean Wang, 2023).

Review

Nai Nai & Wài Pó is a short film about the grandmothers of the filmmaker. Both the one on the dad’s side, and the one on the mum’s side. It is an endearing experience with no story per se. The idea is to capture their essence, which Wang does beautifully. The narrative follows their daily lives so faithfully that the connection between the characters on screen and the audience’s grandmas is instantaneous.

All grandmothers have a few common traits and most of them have lost any sense of ridicule or shame. They are who they are unapologetically, which is what makes them so inspiring and precious. Accompanying them during the seventeen minutes of footage feels like a concentrated visit to your granny, with the endearing, heart-warming moments along with the more goofy and badass versions of her.

Wang’s grandmothers. Source: Nai Nai & Wài Pó (Sean Wang, 2023).

The idea to bring both grandmothers together is really clever, not only because of the hilarious dynamics between them, but also because of the different perspectives they have of their situation. One is quite dark, thinking about whether certain experiences will be the last in her life, while the other is quite accepting of her closeness to death and what that might entail.

Regardless of their differences, they do agree on one thing, and it is delightful that the film shows it: their life and energy changes when they are with their grandkids. This is a common denominator for most grandmothers. It connects the audience to memories of their own in the most raw and pure of ways. We all remember what it feels like to spend time with our grandparents, and it is a gift to be able to relive that through this piece.

The ABCs of Book Banning

  • Year of production: 2023
  • Director: Sheila Nevis, Trish Adlesic and Nazenet Habtezghi.
  • Producer: Christina Avalos, John Hoffman and Christine Turner.

Synopsis

Children are asked about their thoughts on the book banning happening at their schools.

Young girl talking about the book Ambitious Girl. Source: The ABCs of Book Banning (Sheila Nevis, Trish Adlesic and Nazenet Habtezghi; 2023). The Film Collaborative.

Review

The ABCs of Book Banning asks the real victims of this practice: children. In a paranoid fever, a group of American people have decided that banning books was a great idea and apparently Nazis were right to do so. Thankfully, there are still rational people in the US who firmly oppose to this practice and denounce it. Such is the case of centenarian Grace Linn. She sees the similarities between the Nazi regulations and that of some school boards clear as day, and has no problem confronting them in the name of freedom.

It is ironic that the US permits this behaviour of prohibition while still promoting their self-appointed freedom hub label. History is easily forgotten and is always in danger of repeating itself. This is what is happening and what will continue to happen if valuable books like the ones shown in The ABCs of Book Banning are kept away from readers. One of the children summarises the whole problem with one question: why would you want to steal knowledge? The answer to that question is probably darker than she can imagine.

Keeping knowledge from children creates easily manipulable sheep for any politician, businessman, banker, etc. to scam, cheat and take advantage of them. You can feed people fear of irrational things if they are unaware of their absurdity, which they will be if they have no access to knowledge. The fact that in this day and age school boards behave like the medieval church who hoarded knowledge and burnt anything they didn’t like, is preposterous.

The ABCs of Book Banning shines light in the absurdity of the situation and gives a voice to the most affected, the often ignored children who are being kept from knowledge about basic history, the environment, queer culture and acceptance, and female empowerment. These are but a few of the themes that children should be brought up with if we hope to achieve an egalitarian, accepting, forward-thinking society that stops trying to destroy earth and each other. Evidently, that is not the goal for a lot of people in charge of the education of the future generations. This is scary, disappointing, and makes this type of documentary crucial.

The Barber of Little Rock

  • Year of production: 2023
  • Director: John Hoffman and Christine Turner.
  • Producer: Christina Avalos, John Hoffman and Christine Turner.

Synopsis

Exploration of America’s racial wealth gap through Arlo Washington’s story. A barber from Little Rock who has founded a non-profit community bank called People Trust.

Arlo Washington negotiating a loan. Source: The Barber of Little Rock
(John Hoffman and Christine Turner, 2023).

Review

The Barber of Little Rock is fascinating, especially for people outside the US and/or the economic professional sphere. It is very important for people to see the “invisible” methods that white-male-dominated institutions use to maintain racial inequity so that they can fight against those policies.

This short film exposes how these racist strategies keep black people from getting real opportunities to improve their lives. It is heartbreaking and infuriating, but also crucial, that word gets out and everyone with the power to help do their part. The film, for its part, is extending awareness and giving, not only hope, but a clear path through which people can come together to slowly change the situation.

Technically, the short feels a bit off for anyone not used to US narratives. Or maybe because we are and it resembles them a lot. It gets dangerously close to an advertisement rather than the exposure of a real-life situation, especially at the beginning.

All the moments when Arlo Washington is talking about his method and schooling people seem more like a TED talk or a sales pitch than facts. It is mostly because of the way he expresses himself. When he is giving loans or talking about his motivation to choose the path that he is on, it is completely genuine. You emphasise with him completely. However, that only makes the other moments strike you as all the more staged.

Incidentally, the interviews with clients where they answer several questions about their situation and how the workings of American economy affects their lives, is absolutely fantastic. It is the heart of the documentary and the only way that you can truly understand how abstract terms such as red lining, wealth divide or economical segregation affect people’s lives.

The Last Repair Shop

  • Year of production: 2023
  • Director: Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot.
  • Producer: Kris Bowers, Jeremy Lambert, Ben Proudfoot and Josh Rosenberg.

Synopsis

Compilation of the life stories of the workers and clients of the last free instrument repair shop for students.

Little girl and the instrument she plays. Source: The Last Repair Sho
(Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, 2023).

Review

The Last Repair Shop takes the risk of being quite niche in its theme, especially at the beginning. The first few minutes can easily lose the attention of the spectators who are not especially passionate about the process of fixing or playing instruments. A few minutes in, though, the real theme: people united through instruments, is revealed, reclaiming that lost audience’s attention.

Although the comparison between broken instruments and “broken” people is quite on the nose, the stories are so engaging that they make up for it. Some of them are a bit cliché and might not capture the viewers as much. However, the film ends up with the most powerful stories, making any previous narrative weakness disappear. From uplifting to inspiring to devastating. These stories take you on an emotional rollercoaster that can easily make a couple of tears fall.

Reparation process of an instrument. Source: The Last Repair Shop
(Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, 2023).

The only part that can be criticised as a mistake is the editing. Recording people for a long time after they have finished talking can be interesting if their reactions or visible discomfort for having a camera pointed at them adds something to the narrative. In this case, there is no value to those awkward moments of visibly uncomfortable people other than to make the audience uneasy too. This visual dissonance leaves the sound to make up for the sloppy editing. Thankfully, it does.

Advice to take from these short films:

  • What leaders want and what people want is not always the same. If you represent people you should represent their interests, not yours.
  • A grandmother is a treasure.
  • Always remember that knowledge is power, and a lot of people will try to take it away from you.
  • Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean that the problem is gone.
Part of Nai Nai & Wài Pó (Sean Wang, 2023) promotional poster.

What’s your take? Have you watched any, or all, of these short films? Which one if your favourite? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, in my contact page or through my Instagram! For more reviews and cinema-related articles, check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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