Once again, the nominated documentary shorts had a long combined running time. A time too long to be in a single film reel. I saw one set of shorts one day and another set the other day. All five documentary shorts are unique in their own subjects and in the themes they were trying to convey. Here are my reviews of this year’s films nominated in the category Best Documentary Short Subject:
The Elephant Whisperers (dirs. Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga) – It’s Mudumulai National Park in the Tamil Nadu area of south India. The park consists of mostly tribal people and many wildlife. In recent decades many species have become endangered. One couple of the Kattunayakan tribe named Bomman and Bellie are known to care for baby elephants. One of the elephants they care for is a baby elephant they named Raghu. Raghu was found badly injured and his mother was killed by electrocution. The couple nursed it, took care of it and raised Raghu as a pet until he can be of juvenile age. Soon they come across another baby elephant that was left behind as the elephants did their seasonal migrating. The elephant, who’s a female, is also tended to by Bomman and Bellie and Raghu treats her like a little sister. Over time, the government takes Raghu before the couple is ready to let him free. They still take care of the female.
This Netflix documentary is a story of an environmental theme. It’s as much about the tribal people taking care of the elephants as it is about the actual elephant itself. Both the species and the tribal people are both threatened with modernization and of climate change. The threats are made obvious, but the story does not get too heavy. In fact the story takes on an enjoyable feel to it. We see as the couple form a bond with the elephants and love them as if they were their own human child. They show as they put colors on the elephants as part of a religious ritual. The film is as much colorful and enjoyable in spectacle as it is good on its environmental topic. In addition, this film consists of five years of footage with the elephants and the couple. That’s why I place it as my Will Win pick.
Haulout (dirs. Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev) – A man is sent to the Chukotka region of Russia; the area of Asian Russia that’s a close distance to Alaska. He’s a marine biologist in a remote uninhabited area who’s given instructions through radio and enough food to last the season. One day, he notices a huge flood of walruses have come to the coast. They threaten to intrude the place he’s residing in. For hours throughout the day, he has to find refuge on top of the roof. Nevertheless he has to study the populations and the temperatures. Over a hundred-thousand have migrated to the area. Then as the season pass, they swim back in the Chuchki Sea. He then studies the dead walruses left behind. We then learn at the end the biologist, Maxim Chakilev, is studying not only a species but also the effects of climate change as the huge migration is a result of the changes, as well as the record numbers of deaths from the high temperatures.
This story is good as it comes without narration. It’s a series of events that happen and the story tells itself over the elapsed time. The directors, who are brother and sister, don’t just simply have a message to deliver. They have a message to show and let the story deliver that message. It’s as impressive as it is informative.
How Do You Measure A Year? (dir. Jay Rosenblatt) – From age one to age eighteen, film maker Jay Rosenblatt films his daughter Ella on each of her birthdays, or around them. With each film, he asks Ella the same questions, about her dreams, what she thinks power is, what she wants to be when she grows up, and her feelings toward her father. One of her goals is to be a singer and often she sings one of her favorite songs in the films. As she grows up, her answers go from playful to more serious. The questions about their relationship also have noticeable differences as there are times when it’s real serious. The final one at eighteen is tearful for Ella as she knows it will be the last one.
There are a lot of these films on social media where parents film their child as they grow. This film is not as complicated as the other films. This is one film a day for eighteen years. Nevertheless it tells a lot. You can see Ella grow and her mannerisms change. She goes from playful as a toddler to enjoying it as a child to being annoyed or disgusted with it as a teen to sad to see it all end at eighteen. These annual films also tell of a lot of her concerns and her deep hidden emotions. That’s what makes it unique from most chronological child films. It’s the depth of Ella’s answers and the relationship with her father that makes this set of films unique in its own way.
The Martha Mitchell Effect (dirs. Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison) – This documentary tells the story of Martha Mitchell, wife of John Mitchell. When Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States in 1968, he chose John to be his Attorney General. At the time, the White House was practically a male-dominated government. wives were supposed to be out of their husband’s business, just appearing aside them in public. Martha Mitchell was different. She was known to be unafraid to speak her mind. She’d even call in to radio shows and spill the beans of what’s happening. Things really became uncomfortable for the Nixon administration as she was not afraid to be critical of the system. We all know how much of a control freak Richard Nixon was. And for the wife of the Attorney General to blab all that, you could see how they could see her as a threat. She even became a celebrity with the public. Then around the time of the Watergate break-in, coincidentally or not, Martha was kidnapped at a hotel for three days. She was even injected by a member of the government. In the end, Watergate became Nixon’s downfall. John Mitchell was sentenced to prison and would eventually divorce Martha. Many people assume Martha paved the way for Nixon’s downfall.
This Netflix documentary is an important film to have right now. It focuses on a lot of things in politics that we see happening right now. First, it’s of political corruption. People are still encouraged to stay quiet and play the game. Those that spill the truth out are still punished. Second, it’s of a male-controlled environment. The whole political system in the US was male controlled and Martha’s husband was part of the people pulling the strings. So hearing of how a woman not afraid to tell it as she saw it would naturally make them comfortable. Third, it’s of control. Even though the US is to be seen as the “land of the free,” they have some hidden truths. There was a president who was a control freak and wanted everything done his way and feared opposition. In sure there were many times Nixon saw Martha as his top threat. That case where Martha was kidnapped and injected around the time of the Watergate break-in will leave you guessing. Was it an act of control from Nixon? This documentary will leave you with some unanswered questions. This documentary is very much a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Knowing how our system lies to us should make us glad for loudmouths like Martha.
Stranger At The Gate (dirs. Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones) – The film begins with family talking of former Marine Richard (Mac) McKinney. His daughter mentions of him being a mass murderer. The film then leads to an Afghani couple living in Muncie, Indiana. They talk of how they immigrated. The film then leads to Mac. He tells of when he was growing up and what led him to be a Marine. Footage of the WTC attack on September 11, 2001 changed everything. Mac was then to do service in Afghanistan and Iraq. His service ended in the mid-2000’s, but the war was not over in his head. He returned to Muncie to see Muslims. That, combined with the PTSD from the war, led him to see them as the enemy. He puts together a pipe bomb which he plans to detonate at the mosque in Muncie, without his wife and daughter knowing. One day, he goes to the mosque to see any particular areas where to put the bomb. Instead he sees a welcoming community. Members of the community talk of what it was like to meet Mac. Over time, Mac kept coming back. His desire to kill disappeared over time and he had a new desire to be part of this community. Then it’s exposed. His bomb is discovered. Everyone is in shock and Mac is interrogated to see if he’s a domestic terrorist. He served time, but eventually was welcomed back into Muncie’s Muslim community.
This is a remarkable story that forms itself well. As the story starts, the audience would first guess that Mac was responsible for a huge hate crime. As time passes, you would still think he committed that terrible act. Then as we progress on, you learn that Mac didn’t commit an act of domestic terrorism. He almost did, but it turned out to be a case that love won over. Those interviewed show the story from various angles from family to the Muslim community to the Afghan refugees to the police. They all have a lot to say and it leads to the overall message from the film. The message being hate is very often a state of mind. We see that as Mac was a soldier and was taught to hunt down the enemy during the war. His PTSD from fighting in the war mixed with his war-time mentality towards Muslims were the ingredients for his Islamophobia right there. The film also shows that hate can be defeated by love. It’s a message we need to hear right now, especially since we hear news about so many shootings and so many hate attacks. This is a remarkable story of how one such attack was prevented from happening when the almost-perpetrator allowed himself to heal. That’s why I decide this documentary to be my Should Win pick.
And there you go! That’s my focus on the nominees for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. Very rarely do I want to see documentaries. These five films made it worth watching.