2021 Oscars Shorts Review: Documentaries

The documentary shorts nominated for this year’s Oscars had a combined running time over three hours. So it’s understandable why I chose to see the Animation and Live-Action shorts one day while seeing the Documentary nominees another day. The documentary nominees for this year are an impressive range of films. All have a unique topic of focus that gets one thinking. Some were positive stories while some were more on negative issues. All have something to say. And here are my thoughts on this year’s nominees:

Audible (dir. Matthew Ogens): The film focuses on the football team on the Maryland School For The Deaf. For sixteen years, they’ve had the best deaf football team in the nation. But the film begins as they show their first loss in sixteen years. Although the film showcases the school’s students and the football team, the prime focus is on student Amaree McKenstry-Hall. We see Amaree as he bonds with the team and conversates with the students. Sometimes it can get heated. We learn that he and the team play in memory of a former student who committed suicide after being send to a regular school. We learn of his family background of how his father left the family shortly after his birth. Soon he reunites with his father, who’s now recovered from his drug addiction and is the head pastor of a church. Then the homecoming game happens. This is to be the last game for many of the players.

This story couldn’t have come at a better time, just as CODA is a heavy favorite to win Best Picture! And just last year, The Sound Of Metal was a Best Picture nominee! The unique thing about this is it’s about deaf athletes. You learn about how deaf football players play, you learn how they communicate. However you also get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a deaf teenage. You see they have the same fun stuff you and I had as a teenager, but you also see they have problems, concerns and insecurities all their own. It’s not only about deaf teenagers and how they live out their teenage years, but it also shows us about Amaree and his own issues, his own battles. It’s a story that goes through so many angles, but is very insightful, and very much an eye-opener.

Lead Me Home (dirs. Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk): The film focuses on the homeless situation in the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle between 2015 to 2019. The film also focuses on some individuals whom they interview. They’re various men and women, and one trans female. They come from various races. The come from various backgrounds. The interviewees are asked three main questions: their names and ages, how they ended up as homeless, and would they live in a home. The people range in ages from 26 to their 50’s. How they became homeless are a mixed bag of scenarios from drug addiction to a criminal past to the trans female disowned by the family to abusive family scenarios to the mental illness of some one messed over by the welfare system. Many would like to live in their own house, but one does not. He says every time he moves into a place, he finds himself back to being homeless soon. He would like his own van.

This is an inciteful film about the homeless situation we rarely see. We see the people interviewed on how they deal with whatever sleeping situation they can fix up, their bathing or showering opportunities they can seize, the food they’re lucky to eat and whatever counseling they get. In some cases, we’re shown the homeless in their surrounding areas, and the homeless camps in that area are large in size. We’re also shown how the homeless are in debate in their civic and state rallies and how some citizens speak their disgust at them. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some with Trump-fueled rage at the time. The film doesn’t exactly have too much of a beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless this film is a good showcase to a problem that we don’t really know a lot about, but think we do.

The Queen Of Basketball (dir. Ben Proudfoot): Lusia Harris is possibly the greatest basketball player you’ve never heard of. Born in Mississippi in 1955, she grew up poor in a segregated town. At the time, there were very few opportunities for African-American girls. However basketball for her was a way out. She would watch NBA games with her brothers and they would try to imitate the moves. Lusia stood out with her moves and her 6’3″ height. Her basketball prowess helped her pursue post secondary education at Delta State. During her first season (1974-75), the goal was to dethrone the Mighty Macs of Immaculata University who were considered the best female college basketball team ever. It paid off as Lusia and the girls were able to win over Immaculata and a new era had begun. The following year, Lusia and the Deltas did it again. Her prowess allowed her to represent the US at the Montreal Olympics where women’s basketball was being held for the first time. The US team won silver behind the Soviets. The following year, Delta repeated their win, duplicating Immaculata’s feat, and Lusia was crowned MVP. But it ended right there. There was no WNBA for Lusia to go to. She was also diagnosed as being bipolar over time. She was offered to play for an NBA team and was offered big publicity, but she turned it down. Instead she devoted her life to administration at Delta State, coaching and teaching. She married shortly after she graduated and bore four children. Looking back she has no regrets.

This appears to be a great story sold in a simple manner, but when you look at it, it makes for a great story worth telling. It often appears like the story of a pioneer in female basketball. Like she’s one of the many women who brought women’s basketball to where it is now. It showcases her achievements and her big moments and her post-basketball life. In that same manner, it’s told through her. It’s like it’s her story and it’s rightful that she is the narrator of this story. It makes sense as she’s the one who made it happen. In recent time, it also appears like a retrospect. Back on January 18th of this year, Lusia died at the age of 66. The documentary almost appears like a case where Lusia is looking back on her life. I’m glad she had the chance to do this documentary. A great way to remember her. That’s why I give it my Will Win prediction.

Three Songs For Benazir (dirs. Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei): Shaista Khan is a man living in a camp for Afghanis displaced during the war in Kabul. He is recently married to a woman named Benazir, and he sings a song of his love to her. He has plans to start a family but he also has ambitions to join the army along with starting a family. He doesn’t know how hard of a balance this will be. His father does not look upon his goal of joining the army as a good thing. Finally he is given the opportunity to join the army as he will have a meeting with a sergeant. He celebrates with friends and with Benazir, who is pregnant in expecting their first child. He again sings to her. However when he goes to the military base, he learns he needs to be endorsed by a family member if he’s to join. Strict rules in the Afghani military. When he goes to his father and brother, they refuse. Shaista is distraught. The film flashes ahead four years. Shaista is now in an addictions treatment centre. Benazir comes to visit. He is overjoyed at seeing her and his two songs. He sings one last song to her.

This is a poignant documentary. Shaista is simply an Afghani man who wants to make something of himself for himself, his family and for his family to be. We should also remember that Afghanistan is the poorest nation in the continent of Asia. What you see in Shaista appears to be the common struggle of the Afghani people as they try to pick up their lives now that the war is over. Sometimes the losses end up bigger and more hurtful in the end. Nevertheless the film ends with an image of hope. It’s needed now especially since we learned six months ago that the Taliban have returned to power. This is a film that does get you thinking and hoping.

When We Were Bullies (dir. Jay Rosenblatt): While director Rosenblatt was watching a bullying film from the 50’s, a single incident brought back a memory of an incident when he was in the fifth grade. That was when he started a fight with a boy named Richard, who was the odd kid in the class, and other classmates joined in. This Richard was also the inspiration for his first film The Smell Of Burning Ants (1994). Soon he wanted to investigate more into this. What happened to Richard? Do the other students from the class remember that moment? Did they participate? Are they remorseful of it? What does the teacher feel of it? He goes to the school to look into more pictures. He meets with other former classmates at a school’s reunion. Over time, he was able to talk more and find out how they felt about Richard and the incident. He even learned his teacher from his grade is alive and mostly well and he’s able to talk with her. She’s able to give her opinions on bullying and even mentioned her late daughter was bullied too. Later Jay reveals he lost a brother the year before so he was carrying burdens too.

This is a surprising documentary. It’s surprising how one image can suddenly trigger back an unfortunate memory of the past of when you were young and stupid. It’s full of clever imagery mixed with animation as it goes about telling the story. The visuals and the audio make for a good mix. You can call it what you want. Some will say this is a very inciteful story, especially sine bullying is a hot topic. Some will say the film was done in a ridiculous manner. Some will even say this film was a work of Jay’s egotism. Nevertheless it does get one intrigued about human nature. Even its ugliest sides. That’s why I give it my Should Win pick.

Additional Note: Although we don’t know who this Richard is or see what his face was back then, we do learn that he’s still alive and he’s actually a film producer.

And there you have it! That’s my review of the Best Documentary Short nominees. We’ll see on Sunday not only which one wins, but if it’s one of the eight categories whose award won’t be broadcast!

VIFF 2020 Review: Undine

Paula Beer plays a Modern-day undine in Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine.

Undine was the first live-action foreign-language film I saw at the VIFF. It’s a very unique story.

The film begins with a man names Johannes breaking up with his girlfriend. She is distraught and even says she’ll have to kill him. Her name is Undine Wibeau. Undine tries to go about her daily life as she works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum. There she shows people a model of the city and tells of the history of Berlin. Undine has a unique ability to focus in on places and areas. She has an area of the Spree River in focus.

At a remote area of the Spree River, a man named Christoph works in the water to weld or to search out treasures found in the ocean floor. That is his profession. Undine returns to the cafe where she and Johannes used to drink at. That’s where she meets Christoph for the first time. The conversation gets friendly, but an accident happens. The accident causes them to bump into the cafe’s fish tank, causing it to break and spill all over. Both Undine and Christoph fall to the floor in love. However the owner is furious and bans the two from the cafe forever.

Over time the relationship between Christoph and Undine grows. They even move in together. One time during his job, Christoph offers to show Undine what he’s seen. Undine goes down, but without the scuba gear and she later floats off. He senses something peculiar about her. His sense of peculiarity grows right during his job he comes across a sunken ship with the name Undine on it.

Even though the relationship between Undine and Christoph grows, Undine still can’t help but think of Johannes. It strikes her as she goes about her job but when she looks at a part in the module that resembles the location of the cafe, she gets the sense that Johannes is there. Even while she’s walking romantically with Christoph in a park, she noticed Johannes with his new girlfriend. She turns her head, but returns back to Christoph. However Christoph sensed something. It wasn’t just the turn of the head but the the change of her heartbeat. It infuriates him, but Undine confesses the truth. That it was her ex.

Heartbroken, Undine goes to the cafe where Johannes is. Despite the owner being infuriated by Undine’s presence, she meets with Johannes and says he wants her back. The next day, an emergency happens at Christoph’s job site. The oxygen has been cut from his scuba outfit and he’s removed from the river unconscious. Undine is distraught to learn the news. She goes over to the hospital to see Christoph, but there’s a woman by his bedside. Christoph is unconscious and comatose. The woman tells Undine he’s brain-dead and she unleashes her anger on her. Undine leaves, going to Johannes’ place later that night. Johannes is in the pool while his girlfriend goes in the house to get a drink. Undine enters the pool. While Johannes is happy to see her, Undine drowns him. The then leaves and walks into the Spree River naked.

Two years pass. Christoph is alive and well. He recovered from his coma. The woman from the hospital, Monika, is his girlfriend and they are expecting their first child together. However Christoph is sensing something back to the Spree River. He returns one night alone, and there he sees her: Undine. She is alive and well and she belongs in the water. It becomes clear who is truly in Christoph’s heart.

One thing about this film is that it gets into the myth of the undine. For those who don’t know, the undine is a lot like the mermaid most us are familiar with. However the mermaid is just one of the images of the undine. The mythical undine is a lot darker than the mermaid who wants to please the man she meets. In fact one aspect of the undine is if the man is unfaithful to her, he is doomed to die.

What this film does is try to get to the common image of the undine in both its positive qualities and its negative qualities too. In a sense, the film is more of a reminder of the undine myth. The film also tries to set the myth of the undine in the modern world. In modern-day Berlin to be exact. Undine Wibeau is the undine in the modern world who lives along the humans, but gets to the true sense of who she is when she’s in the water.

One unique thing about the film is how they use Berlin as part of the telling of the story. Undine works as a historian with an urban development team. She knows a lot of Berlin’s history form centuries back to the days of division with the Berlin was to the present and its developments. The history also provides clues to Undine’s own past and own identity. One would be surprised how a story of an undine in modern Berlin would come to be.

This is another good film by Christian Petzold. Petzold has become one of Germany’s most heralded directors in recent years with films like Barbara, Jerichow and Phoenix. Here he delivers another good film. It’s very well-done, but it does have its flaws. The energy level does seem to get lost somewhere near the end. Nevertheless it is mostly well-written and well-acted. Paula Beer is also excellent as the mythical Undine. Her role may have lacked dimension, but she was very good in capturing the mythical figure of the undine well. The two leading men, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz, were good in their roles, but I felt their roles were underdeveloped. Hans Fromm did an excellent job with delivering the cinematography for the film.

Undine has done quite well on the film festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival in won the FIPRESI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Beer herself won the Silver Bear Prize at that Festival for Best Actress. It’s also been a nominee for Best Film at the Denver Film Festival, Beijing Film Festival, Seville European Film Festival and a Best Narrative nominee at the Montclair Film Festival.

Undine is a good attempt at telling a modern-day story of the undine myth. It doesn’t keep the energy or the vibe consistent throughout the film, but it is picturesque and has a good sense of the characters.