Oscars 2020 Shorts Review: Documentary

It was a big wonder if I would be able to see the Oscar-nominated shorts this year. The theatres are still closed and now is a case where in BC, places can’t have more than 10 people at a time. It’s frustrating not to be able to go places. Nevertheless I’m happy to have the chance to stream the shorts. To start with, I’ll be dealing with the Documentary nominees:

Colette: dirs. Alice Doyard and Anthony Giacchino – During World War II, Colette Marin-Catherine was a young French woman who took part in the resistance against the Nazis. Her older brother Jean-Pierre, stockpiled weapons for the resistance. He was caught, tried, and extradited to the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp where he was eventually killed. It’s 2019 and the 75th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day are approaching. Colette is to make a return to Dora-Mittelbau to come to terms with her past: a past that still upsets her 75 years later. She doesn’t know if she can do it. She relies on director/producer Alice Doyard for help. During the trip, it appears she might not be able to do it. She can’t hold herself as the mayor of Dora-Mittelbau makes a speech about preventing such an incident like happening again. She confides in Doyard her past and her fears as the moment is approaching. Then she visits the Camp. It brings back bad memories. Then she visits the oven where her brother is executed. She’s in tears and she says her goodbyes to Jean-Pierre.

This is an important film. This is a film that reminds you that very often, wounds and scars are very heard to heal, even 75 years later. Peace needs to be made, but peace is hard to achieve. Especially after something this horrific. The film does an excellent job of making it Colette’s story. However it also does a good job of making it Alice’s story too. Dealing with Colette, she learns a lot and is also overcome with her own emotions. The two even develop a closeness as Colette passes her brother’s ring onto her. It’s a great short film about humanity.

A Concerto Is A Conversation: dirs. Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot – Composer Kris Bowers is about to perform a concerto he recently wrote at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Interviewing him is his grandfather: 91 year-old Horace Bowers Sr. Horace Sr. had just come from a celebration honoring him for his dry-cleaning business that has served the area of Los Angeles he lives in. Kris appears in many an outfit. During the film, Kris interviews Horace and Horace interviews Kris. Horace reveals how he escaped the segregation in Florida for a better life in Los Angeles. He talks of racism he experienced in LA, but an opportunity to make a business happen. Kris talks about music, how much it means to him and some of the music he wrote over the years. The film then ends with his concerto and his grandfather watching on.

This was the last of the documentaries seen as part of the five-set. Since the other four were of depressing subject matter, it was nice to see one of an uplifting story. This is a story of a grandfather and grandson who are successful in two different ways. The grandfather owns a dry-cleaning business that has been hugely successful in the Los Angeles area it serves for decades. The grandson is a composer whose musical scores have been heard in video games, television and film including Madden NFL, Mrs. America, Green Book and The United States vs. Billie Holiday just to name a few. The film shows what it’s like to be black in the United States. It’s also as much about the triumph as it is about the struggle. The film is both an interview where one asks questions to the other and a show of a bond between the two that’s on full display during the documentary’s 13 minutes. You’ll enjoy it and be enlightened.

Do Not Split: Charlotte Cook and Anders Hammer – This film is a compilation of footage of the Hong Kong protests. The footage takes place over a period of eight months from August 2019 when the protests start to March 2020 when Hong Kong goes through social restrictions because of the COVID pandemic. The footage is of various individuals you will only see once and some individuals you will see constantly in the film. In the film, you will see images of the protests, rioting and even makeshift places of shelter they use during the protests. You will see a lot of actions they take, but you will also hear them speak their mind about the issues.

This film will capture your attention and will not let go. This film really gets you concerned with the students and their welfare. If you are up to date on the situation in Hong Kong, the film will make you side with the students and give you a good understanding why they’re fighting this. The arrangement of the footage is great at capturing the essence of the story as well as giving the people their voice.

Hunger Ward: dirs. Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Shueuerman – The film is focused in two therapeutic feeding centres in Yemen. The film focuses on the two female doctors in the feeding centres. Over in the centres, the doctors have to deal with children near death and as well with the families. This is happening during the Yemeni Civil War during what the UN calls the biggest current civilian crisis in the world. The film shows how they deal with them, how they weigh them, how they deal with near-death situations and their attitudes of the whole issue. They even show the aftermath in two cases when the child dies. It shows devastating reactions from family members and the frustrations of the doctors. One of the nurses keeps an album on her iPhone of images of all the children she dealt with who unfortunately didn’t make it. The film also shows survivor stories, like of two girls that did make it.

This is a film that showcases an issue that often gets overlooked by the media. We hear of wars but we often overlook some of the effects of the wars, like how it affects children. This is a film that definitely has a message about its topic. This malnourishment during the Yemeni Civil War ranks Yemen second only to the Central African Republic for the worst child malnutrition in the world. The doctors themselves have their own messages to say. One talks of how Yemen used to be such a great nation, but it has now fallen. The other doctor, she blames this child malnutrition not only on the war but the whole nation, including herself. The film also includes the two survivor stories as messages of hope. The film ends sending a message that the stories of hope and tragedy you see are part of an issue that’s still fighting. I admire how a film like this showcases a message the world’s news cameras rarely focus on. That’s why I give it my Should Win pick.

A Love Song For Latasha – dirs. Sophia Nahali Allison and Janice Duncan – The film is narrated from young women who knew Latasha Harlins personally. For those who don’t know who Latasha Harlins personally, Harlins was a 15 year-old African-American Los Angeles girl whom in 1991 was shot to death by a hostile storeowner in L.A.’s Koreatown. The store owner was found guilty of manslaughter and was given a very lenient sentence which had no prison time at all. In this film, you hear from women who used to know of Latasha of who she was and of her hopes and dreams, including a dream to be a lawyer. You see images of areas where Latasha lived and played and went to school. You also hear from one woman of the store Latasha would meet her fate. She talks of how the owner was already known for her hostility. Latasha knew of it but brushed it aside, saying “She won’t kill anybody.” She couldn’t have been wronger that day when she went to simply buy some orange juice and the storeowner thought she was shoplifting. That led to a violent confrontation where the owner shot her in the back of her head.

The film gives a human image of a person who was a subject of racial tension back in the early 1990’s. For those that didn’t know, the L.A. Riots of 1992 were started by the reaction of the verdicts of the police officers in the beating of Rodney King. however the Koreatown area of Los Angeles was a particular scene of much of the rioting. The death of Latasha and her killer’s lenient sentence was most to do with that. In fact the liquor store Latasha was shot dead at was burned to the ground during the riots. This film creates Latasha not simply as a victim of racism, but as a young girl with hopes and dreams. The media shows one thing; these girls show another thing. The film also showcases images of Latasha’s childhood, images of Latasha at school, and images of young African-American girls in poses of confidence.

This is a documentary important to have out. 2020 was known for its race riots. This film takes us back to the race riots of Rodney King and shows how complex of an issue racism is and how it’s not just one central story that’s the cause of the friction. Yes, the reaction of George Floyd’s death is what provoked the riots of 2020, but George Floyd wasn’t the only victim. Same with Rodney King and the 1992 L.A. Riots. The story of Latasha reminds us it’s not just Rodney’s incident that provokes such an angry backlash. The story reminds us that Latasha is not just a 15 year-old African-American girl who met bad luck that tragic day. She was a somebody. She was a person that mattered, and she will never be forgotten. That’s why I make this film my Will Win pick.

And there you have them. Those are my reviews of the five films nominated for the Oscar category of Best Documentary Short Subject. Reviews of the other short films coming very soon.

VIFF 2013 Review: When I Walk

Filmmaker Jason DaSilva won't let MS stop him from living his life or even making films in When I Walk.
Filmmaker Jason DaSilva makes his MS and his life the focus in When I Walk.

When I Walk is a unique documentary where the documentarian is the complete subject of the film. It’s a very personal documentary. Possibly because this may be the last film he ever makes.

We meet Jason da Silva, a promising young documentarian of Indian heritage living in Vancouver. He lived the life of a budding 25 year-old filmmaker and had a promising future ahead. That all changed in 2006 during a family vacation in St. Maartens. His legs weakened and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His condition wasn’t fatal but it would lead to weakening of his body and other deteriorations. Jason was encouraged by his mother not to allow his disease to limit what he can do. So Jason decided to make his battle with MS his subject of his next film.

Jason is determined to fight it or deal with it the best way he can. He tries his hands as many different types of medicines and healings. He first travels to his parents’ hometown of Goa, India where he agrees to Ayurveda medicine. He then goes to Lourdes, France on the advice of his very religious Catholic grandmother and receives healing water. He also arranges an appointment for a wonder-surgery that’s a breakthrough in fighting MS and is highly advertised on Youtube by people cured through this surgery. The Ayurveda medicine procedures didn’t work. Lourdes didn’t heal. And this ‘wonder surgery’ only gave limited improvements that didn’t last.

Family unity is another theme in the film as Jason comes from a close family with relatives in Canada, New York and back home in India. His mother is the one who’s trying to encourage him to stay positive and hold his head up high. Though she cries near the end of the film and admits she didn’t know how bad it was and how limiting it would be. There’s another time when he visits a relative in India and tries to find out if his MS is inherited.

Despite his illness and its dehabilitation over time, Jason continues to be strong. He talks of difficulties going to restaurants and various other places in New York. He meet up with another person in a wheelchair and they decide to organize a blog of wheelchair accessible locations in New York. It’s not just simply taking restaurants that advertise themselves as ‘wheelchair accessible’ at face value. Both Jason and his colleague go to the various locations and test out how ‘wheelchair accessible’ the places are in both the facilities and the washrooms. Jason also purchases various filmmaking software and various computer accessories to assist him with his filmmaking as his body functioning lessens over time. They show one gadget which assists in functions as Jason makes commands in a microphone. Some days it’s so hard to talk, Alice–who I will talk about shortly– has to learn filmmaking and its functions in order to complete certain jobs for Jason.

Possibly the biggest plot of the documentary is not just simply overcoming his condition of MS in daily life but his relationship with Alice Cook. Before Alice, Jason was a frequent dater in the film making scene. He first thought MS would be the end of the dating road. Then he went to a support group for people with MS offered by his mother. He met a woman named Alice who was around the same age as him. Alice is a fully able person who attended the sessions in support of her stepfather who has MS. Alice took an interest in Jason. They started dating. Alice started helping and assisting Jason in his daily life. Then in 2009 they married. They even show Jason using his scooter with Alice on the back and a Just Married sign on the seat.

However right after the marriage came some new hurdles. First was the stress of being married to a physically limited person. Alice is a very cooperative and a very supportive wife but the stress does take its toll and Alice needs a vacation for a week to give herself relief. One of the things she sacrificed in her relationship with Jason was her love of hiking. She would have the chance to hike again after so many years. There’s also the effort of the two to have children. The film takes us to the doctor’s office where Jason learns he’s fertile and conception is possible. The first conception works but Alice miscarries.  SPOILER ALERT: However the film ends with Alice showing Jason the result of her home pregnancy test: a positive. The film’s last scene shows the two in the ultrasound lab and the screen showing a healthy fetus.

One thing about this documentary that stands out is how personal this is for the filmmaker. Before MS, Jason was no simple documentarian. He was already showing promise at a young age with short documentaries like Olivia’s Puzzle, Twins Of Mankala and a Song For Daniel. He also had two feature-length documentaries to his credit: Lest We Forget and From The Mouthpiece On Back. One would figure MS would be an end to a filmmaking career at such a young age but Jason’s determined not to let it stop him. The film is very personal as it not only hides nothing of Jason but also of Alice. We see an image of blood in the bathtub when Alice miscarries. We also hear Alice tell her side of the story at times and she holds nothing back. In fact there are times when she’s in tears when she talks of the stress of managing a physically challenged husband and her fears for the future as his condition deteriorates over time. This film is as much about the struggle of the two as it is the triumph. Even Jason admits there are times when he can’t handle it or wants to give up.

Another addition to the documentary is the animation. Often the documentary will go to animated images of Jason in his life, MS eating away at him showing the MS as ‘bugs,’ and various other images. That is another added bonus to the documentary that keeps it from getting mundane. Although the animation is not the most professional, it still adds to the documentary.

As a documentary, it’s questionable whether this is worthy of box office release. It has already made appearances at the Sundance Film Fest and the Hot Docs Film Festival where it even won an award. It’s still possible. One thing I know is that it is definitely eligible for broadcast on a documentary television channel.

When I Walk is a film worth seeing. It’s as truthful about the struggles and the setbacks as it is about the triumphs. Definitely worth seeing for all types of people.

BONUS: If you want to learn more about Jason and When I Walk just go to: http://wheniwalk.com/ There’s even a mailing list to subscribe to.