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Friday, December 01, 2023

When it comes time to announce the winner for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 87th Academy Awards, many will probably be busy scrolling through endless live tweets as they await the more prestigious categories. Nevertheless, this year’s shorts deserve notice. Here’s the rundown on the nominated documentary short films.

“The Reaper” (La Parka)

By Gabriel Serra Arguello

If cinematography alone was enough for the win, “The Reaper” would be a shoo-in. Plagued with artistic shots of a slaughterhouse, the film presents the experiences of a long-time butcher who goes by the nickname Reaper. While the camerawork is captivating, the narrative falls flat as it fails to paint the worker as a complex character who is seemingly haunted by killing animals but who also enjoys being good at his work — which one is it? The contradiction will probably keep the award just out of reach for director Arguello.

“Our Curse”

By Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki

Have you ever wanted to watch a baby struggle to breathe? Me neither, but that’s what “Our Curse” has to offer. The short can be neatly summed up in one word: painful. It documents parents trying to come to terms with a disorder called Ondine’s curse, which afflicts their newborn son and prevents him from breathing properly during sleep. Certain scenes are hard to watch, like one where the baby falls asleep while being breastfed and needs a tube inserted into his throat. Watching the documentary is like intruding on someone else’s depressing homemade videos, and the disheartening events will most likely “curse” the film rather than benefit it.

“White Earth”

By J. Christian Jensen

“White Earth” involves winter. Fitting, right? But specifically winter in North Dakota, where people increasingly seek financial stability with oil-rig jobs. What makes the documentary intriguing is its choice of perspective: three children. One boy lives completely alone while his father works on the rig, a girl takes a distaste to the sudden influx of people in her hometown, and another girl comes from a working immigrant family that moved north to support themselves. The pacing and material of the film holds attention, but its abrupt ending leaves you thinking, “That’s it?”

“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”

By Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry

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It’s easy to see why this short may be the Academy favorite. “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” gives an inside look at the Veterans’ Crisis Line call center, the only call center specifically for at-risk veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The HBO documentary covers several tension-filled phone calls from retired soldiers who have guns and razor blades in hand and nightmarish memories in mind. The filmmakers successfully illustrate the effects of war on our soldiers, but they choose not to delve deeper into the not-so-lucky situations in which the phone operators fail to save their victims, and this could be enough to cost them the win.


By Aneta Kopacz

The top tearjerker of the group, “Joanna,” is simple in its editing and craft. It imparts a bittersweet depiction of a dying mother and her 5-year-old son. What sets apart this documentary is that it comes off as real. Nothing seems contrived: not the son’s childlike curiosity, not the mother’s good humor in spite of her cancer and not the underlying pain that occasionally slips out from both of them. Watching is like getting a brief look into the lives of two hapless individuals, sniffling as you witness their last memories together and wiping your eyes as the mother reads aloud the letter she plans to leave for her son. Kopacz miraculously forms a melancholy experience into a beautiful short documentary that proves most worthy of the Academy Award.

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