2016 Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films Ranked From Worst to Best

By  · Published on January 29th, 2016

It’s that special time of year when movie theaters all over America start playing short films. Some places are hosting a total of 15 of them. Most of those participating, though, will be screening only 10. The shorts receiving this privileged exhibition are the Oscar nominees in the three categories devoted to the best in cinema of a length of 40 minutes or less. Thanks to ShortsHD, each category – live-action, animated and documentary – are showing separately (docs in fewer theaters), and all five contenders for each are included. You can find them in a theater near you (find one here) beginning this Friday.

Continuing our review and ranking of the 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts (see our posts on the animated and live-action contenders), below is my take on the documentary category. Despite typically favoring nonfiction films, I’ve never been too excited about the docs chosen by the Academy. They seem mainly highlighted for what they’re about rather than how they’re about. This year is no exception, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few notably strong shorts in the bunch, great films with significant subjects. As always, it’s a tough category to predict since it’s not necessarily about quality, but I will bet the one former winner in the category won’t get it again. Regarding their theatrical run starting this weekend, I don’t recommend it as being necessary. Two are already streaming on Netflix and the other three air on HBO within the next six months.

5. Body Team 12

Actress Olivia Wilde and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen are executive producers of this 13-minute short that looks at Ebola victim clean up in Liberia. The film focuses on one member of the titular team tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead, transporting them and burning them in a crematorium. This woman tells of the dangers, the need for brave people to risk their lives for the sake their country, the reasons why women are more suited to be a part of Body Team 12 and the drama that comes with trying to collect bodies from families who violently refuse to let their loved ones go, especially to be incinerated, despite the concern for contagion.

There’s no question that this is an important subject, a multi-personal side of the Ebola story that most of us wouldn’t see otherwise, and there’s no question that the primary documented worker, Garmai, is a brave woman. The doc, however, is pretty basic stuff. It’s hard to see the achievement of the filmmaking, outside of maybe director David Darg risked his own life to capture this story. But he didn’t capture it adequately enough as it was happening, or didn’t trust that footage to work on its own, so has Garmai comment on what we’re seeing through a later interview, reality TV-style, so even though it’s a film that shows a lot, it’s more interesting in telling. Body Team 12 is the kind of doc short that seems more likely nominated because of the content than how it’s presented. Fortunately it’s quite brief, a quick in and out with the essential facts and narrative and that’s it.

Could it win? Typically the worst nominee, in my opinion, winds up being the winner, so I guess we can bet on it.

How else to see it: HBO, premiering March 12th

4. Chau, Beyond the Lines

Think the effects of Agent Orange have decreased by now? It’s been 45 years since the stuff was last dropped over Vietnam, but children continue to be born with defects as a result of what it did to the environment there. Courtney Marsh’s film highlights the ongoing aftermath of the war on its people but focuses solely on one teenager with physical disabilities caused by America’s use of “orange crush.” Filmed over eight years, Chau is followed from a care center filled with other disabled kids, mostly orphans, back home to his unloving parents and through various other residences as he tries to make it on his own as an artist.

Chau, Beyond the Lines is at first heartbreaking and angering and shocking – particularly for how the care center is a tourist spot for people to gawk at the poor, deformed children. Then it becomes an inspirational tale of the highest order. This is a film that takes the overcoming all odds and obstacles idea to the extreme. Chau barely has use of his hands and his legs are different sizes, but he’s of very sound and passionate mind to do what he loves. While only 34 minutes, the short doc does feel a lot longer, due to the span of time. And it does seems a little directionless in the middle. Obviously that’s how it had to have been for much of those eight years, until Marsh found some kind of conclusion or at least a solid stopping point. At least she didn’t try to stretch it out to a feature.

Could it win? It’s possible, given that it’s similar to 2012 winner Inocente except here the artist is disabled not undocumented, which could be seen as even more powerful to the voters.

How else to see it: Netflix

3. Last Day of Freedom

In a fully animated documentary, 32 minutes in length, we hear Bill Babbit talk about his brother Manny’s life and death, the latter of which he feels partially responsible for. Manny received the death penalty for the murder of an old woman in her own home, and it was Bill who led the police to his guilt. But nobody expected Manny to be executed for the crime, which was an unfortunate result of his post-Vietnam War trauma and mental illness. Bill Babbit is the sole vocal storyteller, his interview recorded and rotoscoped and mixed in with dreamy visuals under the direction of Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman.

It’s great to see animated nonfiction recognized, and I think Last Day of Freedom should have received a nomination in the animated short category, too (is that possible?). There’s a trippy quality to the film that allows for a unique, more expressive account of Bill’s anguished confession and his brother’s back story than we’d have gotten from a standard doc. But a standard doc might have been more emotional, if the real Bill Babbit could be seen, his real tears witnessed, and it also therefore could have been more effective as straight anti-death penalty issue film. I don’t need it to be the latter, and I don’t need the former, but there are also times when it’s so dreamy that it’s narcotic, especially in the monotony of the single voice and consistent imagery. I like what the film is doing on a technical level more than I like the actual film, I guess. It’s still worth seeing for the craft.

Could it win? While it wouldn’t be the first animated doc to win, I don’t think such a different kind of doc will get the award this time.

How else to see it: Netflix

2. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

After secretly getting married to the man she loved, 19-year-old Saba was beaten by her uncle and shot in the face by her father. They then put her in a bag and threw her into a river to drown. But she survived and crawled out. “Honor killings” like the one Saba’s family members attempted and permitted are too common in Pakistan, and the women almost never live. We first meet Saba as she’s having her face repaired in the hospital. Her father and uncle are soon found and locked up and face trial for attempted murder, but while Saba refuses to forgive the men, her society traditionally acquits such criminals, even those whose acts are successful, and Saba must deal with the possibility of that being the case here.

If the subject matter sounds familiar, that’s good because these human rights violations against women in Pakistan need to be known about. But it’s also probably because director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the short doc Oscar in 2012 for collaborating (with primary director Daniel Junge) on Saving Face, which focuses on reconstructive surgery for women who had acid thrown in their face by husbands or in-laws similarly in the name of honor. This new film, which addresses the broader systemic issue of Pakistani society and its power over the justice system, is also shot by Saving Face DP Asad Faruqi.

It’s been a while since I saw Saving Face, but I wasn’t a big fan. This one is much better, I think, in part because it’s a more well-rounded story and packs a lot more into the barely qualifying but obligatory-for-HBO-short-doc-nominees running time of 40 minutes. It’s also more depressing. Hearing from the father and uncle and the family members and elders and others who support what they did is essential, both frustrating and fascinating to listen to. Above that balance of points of view, though, the doc is mainly a showcase of one woman’s remarkable courage, of true romance in a place where that’s not normal and tremendous integrity all around, for good and bad.

Could it win? As much as it deserves the Oscar more than Saving Face, it’s not likely the Academy will give it to Obaid-Chinoy again so soon with such a similar issue and subject.

How else to see it: HBO, premiering March 7th

The Anti Honor Killing Campaign by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

In Pakistan, people are killed everyday in the name of ‘honor’. Join Sharmeen Obaid in the Anti Honor Killing Campaign – a petition launched in an effort to motivate law makers in parliament to pass the Anti Honor Killings Law (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill so that the victims of these crimes receive the justice that they deserve. #PriceOfForgiveness

Posted by The Price of Forgiveness on Monday, January 18, 2016

1. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of Shoah

Whether you’ve seen all of Shoah, part of Shoah or none of Shoah, Adam Benzine’s 40-minute documentary is a compelling profile of its director, Claude Lanzmann, and the making of his nearly 10-hour film on the Holocaust. As Lanzmann says in the short, he made the film but also the film made him. And between the 12 years of production, time spent afterwards recuperating and 30 years since of him being defined by his epic doc, that’s a believable statement. Benzine, a former critic and editor for Realscreen, centers the film on interviews with Lanzmann reflecting on some of the lesser known stories behind Shoah as well as his relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Unlike Shoah, Benzine’s doc features a lot of archival material, including never before seen footage from the cutting room floor and personal photos. But the interviews with Lanzmann correlate well to some in his own doc. Not that the production is comparable to the Holocaust, but the memory-driven anecdotes and his difficulty with talking about some events does relate to the method of the 1985 film’s making, if not its subject. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of Shoah is also an important record of its own sort, with Lanzmann now in his 90s and in need of being captured before he’s gone – and his impending death is something else he addresses in the short. If you’ve been putting off watching Shoah, watch this and it will make you want to see that film. And then probably watch this again afterward.

Could it win? Since Shoah itself wasn’t eligible for an Oscar but is considered one of the best docs ever made and one of the most important pieces of historical record of the 20th century, giving an award to the short will also serve as a kind of an honoring of its subject matter. For that, I think it has a good chance, besides the fact that it’s also just the best film of the bunch.

How else to see it: HBO, premiering May 2nd

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.