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.

Vancouver International Film Festival Turns 30

Back on Saturday, I started my volunteer work for the Vancouver International Film Festival. It is my fourth year volunteering. It’s great being part of an event that gathers a lot of media attention and helps promote filmmaking.

If you look back to the late 1970’s, you might remember there being film festivals like the Toronto Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival that garnered very little attention but were growing at the time. They were still below the ranks and renown of the more established film festivals in Europe like Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Since then, Sundance and Toronto have made a major impact on the film world with its releases and its promotion of films. The Vancouver International Film Festival started in 1982 and now ranks as one of the top film festivals in North America. It nevertheless does carry a bit of an identity crisis but does have a lot to offer.

Since the Vancouver International Film Festival, the VIFF, opened in 1982, it has grown to an annual attendance of 150,000 every year since 2003. The 2000’s saw the construction of a special theatre, the VanCity Theatre, and an adjacent office for the VIFF organizers. This year it features over 300 films from 59 countries. Quite a lot. Nevertheless many feel that the VIFF is sandwiched in the role of playing second-fiddle to the Toronto Film Fest. In fact one person frequently tells me that we always get the ‘leftovers’ from Toronto. It is true that we get a lot of films that have already had their show at Toronto, especially those that get a special presentation at the Visa screening room. Very rarely, if ever, does a big-name actor show up. At most, a big feature will only have a tech person in the audience at the VIFF. What’s also true is what the VIFF has to offer on its own. Firstly the VIFF has more Asians films than any film festival in North America. This year there are more than 100 from dozens of countries. The VIFF also features more Canadian films and works than any other film festival in Canada. Not even Toronto has as much. They’re too busy hyping up the Oscar contenders. The VIFF also features loads of documentaries. There are dozens this year too from a wide variety of topics. The VIFF also features a lot of short films and films for youth. The film festival is not simply a festival showing straight features but a wide variety of films from across the spectrum from shorts both animated and live action to at least four films longer than 4 hours. There’s also the possibility of Q&A sessions from directors and even actors.

The VIFF also has a lot of dealings going on. Some films will catch the eye of distributors and will work things out to have them shown to the big screen. Others, like documentaries, will be able to be shown on specialty television networks. Some will be promoted as videos or films for special groups or resource centers. Like last year I saw the Canadian film Two Indians Talking and the director said in the Q&A that she hopes for it to be put on DVD and shown in First Nations resource centers. Then there are those where the VIFF will be the furthest their film will get. That’s the nature of the beast in filmmaking and promoting. It’s always a case of chance and luck of how far it will go.

Another thing the VIFF did was that it had a special panel. With this being the 30th Year of the Festival, it had a look back to the early years of the Festival and also hosted a free forum about the future of film. I wasn’t there at the Forum but I’m sure there’s a lot of discussion. I myself believe the world of film faces a lot of challenges in the years and decades ahead. One is the future of creativity and taking film in new directions in what is essentially a bottom-line business. Film can allow for a lot of creative minds to express themselves but there’s this beast called ‘showbiz’ where the subject of movie marketability is inescapable. Whether creativity can be taken in new directions and possibly even change filmmaking, only time will tell. Another factor to take into consideration is the multitude of media sources one now has, including some that didn’t exist ten years ago. When the VIFF opened, film’s top rivals were television, VCR and the newly-created pay TV. Multiplexes were increasing but it was still possible for a single-screen cinema to hold its own. Today, we have digital cable with hundreds of channels at our fingertips. We have websites like Youtube and Netflix. We can watch a movie on our laptop or even on our cellphone. Multiplexes are now the mainstay for big screen cinemas and single screen cinemas nowadays have either succumbed, are now in the fight of their life, or have to have some backing from some film source or company. Some of you may already have read some of the current difficulties of running a cinema as noted in my Hollywood Theatre article. Just to give a heads up, there’s going to be a multiplex opening in the new shopping mall at the New Westtminster station: ten cinemas with a total of 1800 seats. A multiplex with samll per-screen theatres; another example of what’s happening with the movie business.  Don’t get me wrong. There will be a future for film–there’s no doubt in my mind– but it has a bumpy road ahead.

This year, there were some changes in the venues with the Festival. The Granville 7 still remains the biggest venue for showing films but the Visa Screening Room is no longer Cinema 7 on the top floor. Instead it’s the Vogue Theatre. The Park Theatre is not one of the alternative theatres this year. The VanCity and Pacific Cinematheque are still being used for the Festival. Last year, the Festival opened with the screening of a Canadian film–Barney’s Version— with promotion of Telefilm Canada. This year they open with Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, a film from Spain. Last year, they closed with the animated movie The Illusionist. This year, they close with the French film The Kid With A Bike.

In its thirtieth year, the Vancouver International Film Festival shows strong signs of growth. It may have a while before it joins the ranks of Sundance and Toronto but I’m sure it will continue to establish its own identity in the future. For more information about the Festival, go to the VIFF website.