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The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts Reviewed and Ranked

By  · Published on February 8th, 2017

Short-form Academy Award nominees hit theaters this week.

The White Helmets (Netflix)

I can’t recall the last time the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short were so essential in terms of both the quality of the films and the importance of their subject matter. This is a pretty heavy year, with three of the shorts tied to the Syrian Civil War and/or the international refugee crisis. Another film deals with hospital patients on life support. The fifth involves the Holocaust. There’s death abound, and of course much of it now unintentionally is tied to current events, specifically the immigration ban.

As usual, Shorts HD is putting all the nominees in theaters on the big screen, though once again the two doc programs (they’ve altogether got a longer running time so are split into multiple parts) aren’t showing everywhere, like the animated and live-action shorts are. If you can find them, see them. If not, fortunately this year four of the nominees are available for home streaming, two of them via Netflix, one via the New Yorker, and one via the New York Times. The fifth film must also be seen, though.

Below I have reviewed and ranked the films, and the latter task was more difficult this year than it has been in the past. All of the doc short nominees are great, with the top pick being outstanding, the rest being mostly equally secondary. As for what will win at the Academy Awards on February 26th, I think it could be my first choice. But this category is not easily predicted.

1. The White Helmets

I don’t know the last time I saw a short documentary this powerful, at least among the Oscar nominees. Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara follow-up their documentary feature Academy Award contender Virunga with an incredible portrait of Nobel Peace Prize nominees The White Helmets. The group of first responders in Syria are phenomenal heroes endangering their own lives daily in Aleppo and the rest of the country to save thousands of victims of air strikes and other bombings. There is footage both chilling and joyous as we get a frighteningly close-up view of the rescue operations alongside one of the White Helmets teams. That would all be plenty, but what makes the film especially interesting and tense as a contained story is that it also follows a group of White Helmets to Turkey for training. And there’s almost as much anxiety in being embedded with them, as they’re far from their families, wondering if they’re safe, and unable to help with bombings they see happening in the news. This needs to be seen whether you attend a Shorts HD showcase or not. It’s on Netflix.

2. Extremis

Dan Krauss was previously nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for the documentary short The Life of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, and in the years since he’s been a cameraperson on numerous other amazing features, some of them also Oscar nominees, including this year’s contender O.J.: Made in America. He’s a very talented verite filmmaker who of course shot Extremis himself. The subject here is a public hospital ICU, with two patients in particular and one prominent doctor given the spotlight for gut-wrenching stories that are much closer to home for American viewers. Even if we haven’t had to make the difficult decisions of family members with loved ones on life support, there’s obviously something more identifiable to us in these very common situations than what’s found in the other nominees. It may feel less significant than the three related to international crises involving the Syrian Civil War and refugees, but it’s still one of the more competently crafted of the whole bunch. This is also on Netflix.

3. Watani: My Homeland

An indispensable compliment to The White Helmets, this doc focuses on a family that’d likely need to be saved one day if they stayed in Syria. It’s an empathic chronicle of a mother and her four children as they finally depart Aleppo following the kidnapping and likely execution of her husband by ISIS. Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen, who has been covering the Syrian Civil War for Frontline, first shows us the family together, the father then being a field commander for the Free Syrian Army, then quickly revisits them a year later, after his abduction, and follows them as they head to Germany as refugees, through Turkey. We’ve seen a number of docs in recent years tracking refugees to their sanctuary destination, or hope for one, but this film feels so much more time timely and urgent in its need to be seen, and it prominently features the children in the family for utmost insight and compassion. It’s fairly straightforward but still very effective. Editor/producer Stephen Ellis shares the nomination.

4. 4.1 Miles

If you’ve seen the feature doc nominee Fire at Sea, you might get a sense of deja vu, like you’ve seen some of this short before. But, no, it’s a different coast guard in a completely different country even (that’s the Italian island Lampedusa, this is the Greek island Lesbos). Directed by Daphne Matziaraki, a student of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism (where fellow nominee Dan Krauss teaches), the film is part of the New York Times’ Op-Docs series. All these things point to the idea that it is a piece of journalism, and that’s definitely the case. 4.1 Miles, which already won the Student Academy Award and which is titled after the distance between Turkey and Lesbos, is primarily reportage of the refugee crisis and one Mediterranean European community caught in the middle of it. It’s coverage of chaos, mostly, as we watch a couple rescue efforts during the course of a single day, and some of it is difficult to experience. If you can’t see the program in the theater, you can view this doc on the New York Times site.

5. Joe’s Violin

Consider what kind of times we’re in that the documentary short involving the Holocaust is the lightest and most feel-good of the nominees. I wouldn’t call this a Holocaust film, exactly, but the Joe of the title is a 91-year-old survivor, and we learn of his background. Plus his experience is significant to the rest of the story. The violin of the title is one he acquired while at a displacement camp following the end of the war while waiting to come to America. He recently decided to donate the instrument during a special drive benefiting New York City students, and the film follows where it wound up, in the hands of a 12-year old Bronx girl. Joe’s Violin is a sweet human interest story, and it’s nice to have a doc about something positive passed down from the Holocaust in the mix, compared to the stuff that’s tragically almost history repeating itself. Director Kahane Cooperman, formerly a Daily Show executive producer, shares the nomination with Raphaela Neihausen, who is also the executive director of the DOC NYC and Montclair Film Festivals.

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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.