As the Oscar nomination voting window opens, suspense is building across all the categories including Documentary Short Subject, where 10 films remain in contention. Five will go on to earn Academy Award nominations, which are set to be revealed on January 22.
Among the contenders, several touch on taboo subjects. In the case of Period. End of Sentence., directed by young filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, that taboo is menstruation. She filmed in India, where a shockingly small percentage of girls and women have access to sanitary pads. A lack of understanding about their bodies, and a deep feeling of shame around the topic, have forced countless numbers of girls to leave school once they develop their period.
“Going to these villages in India and having conversations with hundreds of women and men as well and just bringing up the word ‘periods,’” Zehtabchi recalls, “it was never an outward, confident conversation or understanding about what menstruation was.”
Zehtabchi documented how a low-cost machine is allowing women to manufacture pads themselves, impacting lives in multiple ways—some of them economic.
“The second trip we went on [to film], it was six months after the machine had been installed,” she notes, “and all of a sudden we see these women who are working on the machine, running around with pads in their hands in the village and really feeling empowered because a lot of these women had never worked in their lives before.”
The taboo explored in the shortlisted documentary End Game involves end of life decisions faced by terminally ill people and their loved ones. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman gained extraordinary access to families dealing with these fundamental questions at a hospital and a hospice facility in the San Francisco area.
“People ask me what the film’s about and I’ve never come up with a formulation that doesn’t evoke this stricken look,” Friedman comments. “Yes, there was a lot of pain involved, but the experience was really beautiful. We became very close with the families.”
The filmmakers also showed how enlightened medical personnel are developing ways to help patients and families at such a profound moment in their lives.
“Every time those practitioners walk in the room they’re bringing their humanity and I think that’s really at the root of their training—to come in as human beings and to respond in that way,” Epstein observes. “They’re bringing, of course, all their professional training but it’s really about just dealing with very human issues. As one of the doctors in the film says, ‘Dying is not a medical issue, it’s a human issue.’”
End Game comes from Netflix, as does another of the shortlisted short films, Zion, directed by Floyd Russ. The taboo that underpins that film, arguably, is deformity. The title character, Zion Clark, was born with a rare genetic condition in which the lower body does not fully develop in utero—in Zion’s case, leaving him essentially without a lower body. He was given up for adoption as a baby and then suffered severe abuse in a sequence of foster homes. It’s hard not to conclude he was “beaten and starved a lot,” as he says in the film, because of the stigma of his body.
A turning point came for Zion when he developed a passion for what is considered the oldest sport known to humankind.
“When he was in middle school he got into wrestling as a way to feel a real sense of power about who he is and he became an incredibly accomplished wrestler,” producer Carter Collins told Deadline at the IDA Awards, where the film won the Best Documentary Short Award. Adds Russ, “We like to say it’s a sports doc that’s really about growing up.”
One of the most compelling documentary shorts of the year, undoubtedly, is Lifeboat, directed by Skye Fitzgerald. He spent time on the Mediterranean Sea documenting an unfolding humanitarian crisis that has seen migrants risk a high probability of death as they flee North Africa in dangerously unsafe vessels.
“The second day of our search and rescue operation we were faced with three thousand people floating in the middle of the ocean,” Fitzgerald recounts. “We were out on a Zodiac [boat] filming, people were falling into the ocean, they’re being pushed into the ocean, they’re jumping into the ocean. We were immediately faced with an existential question—do you film them drowning or do you put your camera down? Remarkably, at the end of that three-day period all but two people survived.”
Among the other shortlisted docs is Black Sheep, the story of Cornelius Walker, a young British man of Nigerian descent who lived in a virulently racist community but somehow became friends with young white people his age, triggering a difficult moral compromise. Women of the Gulag, directed by Marianna Yarovskaya, centers on the memories of several women in their 80s and 90s who were dispatched to Soviet forced labor camps decades earlier, during the Stalinist era. ’63 Boycott, directed by veteran filmmaker Gordon Quinn, looks back more than 50 years to a massive protest in Chicago, where a quarter of a million students demonstrated against racial segregation.
My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, from director Charlie Tyrell, boasts the most provocative title of any of this year’s shortlisted short docs. The innovative film uses stop motion techniques to explore Tyrell’s relationship with his late father, a man who lacked the kind of emotional accessibility his son would have liked. By going through his dad’s objects the filmmaker came to respect all his father had overcome to become the best father he could.
Joshua Bennett and Juliana Schatz-Preston directed Los Commandos, a doc that focuses on a group of emergency responders in El Salvador, a society plagued by violent gang activity. Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden remembers a long-forgotten chapter of U.S. history from 1939, when 20,000 American Nazis gathered for a rally at Madison Square Garden.
To qualify in the Oscar short category, documentaries can run no longer than 40 minutes. Some filmmakers thrive amid those constraints.
“Having that limitation forces you to make really tough choices,” comments Friedman of End Game. “Life’s too short. Films are too long.”
“I find there’s a strange beauty in the distillation process,” notes Fitzgerald. “That’s what I think of it is as—the ability to know you’re going to do a short and that you’re going to try to distill this story down to its essence.”