Oscar nominated documentary shorts for 2018: about racial profiling, disability, drug addiction, and compassion

The 2018 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts are playing at the Landmark West End in Washington DC this week, and so far this weekend shows have sold out.  I attended the 4 PM screening yesterday, exiting to find two inches of snow even in Foggy Bottom. There was a brief five-minute intermission after the first three films, and the presentation ended at about 7:10 PM.

The most important film in my view was the last one, “Knife Skills”, by Thomas Lennon, 39 minutes. This film chronicles the training of the staff and opening of one of the nation’s proudest French restaurants, in Cleveland, Ohio: Edwins, on Shaker Square. What is so remarkable is that the owner, Brandon Chrostowski, is eager to staff his restaurants with people who have gotten out of prison.  He sends 120 people after release through his cooking school (the Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute), but only a fraction make the cut.  How many entrepreneurs want to do this?   All the more, his wife has a new baby. In one scene, he cries.

The film resonated with me personally somewhat.  I spent summers as a boy near Oberlin, and often went into Cleveland in the 50s and 60s, particularly to Indians’s baseball games in the old stadium (especially when the Senators were in town).   Today my own relational ties are in the middle part of the state, and I have some knowledge of “small” business there.  I can also remember an announced field trip to a French restaurant (in Washington) for French class in ninth grade.

The longest film has a curious title “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405”, by Frank Stiefel (40 min), shown third.  The film starts out as if to be about Carmageddon, or maybe the recent wildfires, and in 2012 I stayed in the Angelino on the 405.  But soon the film moves indoors, to tell us the story of a sculptor, Mindy Alper, who has a lifelong mental health struggle, and who speaks very slowly.  She talks about her meds early on, and says she often throws up. But once we get into seeing her work, with the fascinating paper mache objects – animals and aliens – the film picks up.

Another film concerning medications is “Heroin(e)”, by Elaine McMillion Sheldon (39 minutes, shown fourth), from Netflix. It is set in Huntington, W Va, on the Ohio river, a town in which I spent a night myself in August 2016.  It starts out by telling us that this is a blue collar town, where people have “real jobs” and get hurt at work. That’s where the opioid problem gets started.  The film focuses on a sympathetic but firm lady judge in drug court – and she does send some people back to jail or to the general criminal court system – and to an EMS worker helping rescue people from overdoes, a mission of compassion.

The second film was “Edith+Eddie”, (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright, 29 minutes, Kartemquin Films).  At age 95, Eddie, a widower and white, marries a black woman, Edith, also 95, who has lived in the same house in Alexandria, Virginia for years. Unfortunately, Edith, who may have mild dementia, has been placed into conservatorship by her adult kids, and the guardian seems unsympathetic to “Loving”.  She is forced to move to Florida, and in grief, Eddie soon collapses and passes away in intensive care. The film was interesting to me due to the long-winded experience I had with my own mother, who passed away (in Arlington) at the end of 2010 at age 97 after a two-year decline.

The first film, “Traffic Stop”, from HBO, directed by Kate Davis. An African-American math teacher Breaion King gets pulled over in a routine speeding stop in Austin, TX and winds up getting brutally handcuffed and arrested after a series of mistakes by both sides.  The film contrasts her classroom grade school teaching scenes with her panic at the arrest, reconstructed from police videocam. This does seem like an argument about police profiling.

I’ll share also the 2-minute “Traffic Jam” by Reid Ewing (2012), that looks like it may gave been filmed near the 405 and 110.  I’d love to see some of Reid’s other short films (“It’s Free”, etc) re-appear.

(Pictures: Kentucky, but near Huntington, mine, Aug 2018; Cleveland, mine, Aug. 2012)

(Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 11:15 PM EST)







Oscar Nominated Shorts for 2018, live action: terror-related film in Kenya is the meatiest

Today, I saw the Oscar Nominated Short Films, Live Action, for 2018 at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington DC.  Official website is here. The set is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

From my perspective, the most substantial film was the last, “Watu Wote” (“All of Us”, by Katja Benrath, sponsored in Germany, at the Hamburg Media School) filmed on location in Kenya and in Swahili and Somali with subtitles. The story is based on a real incident in December 2015.

In Nairobi, a Christian woman Ju (Adelyne Wairimu) boards a bus to a location near the Somali border to visit a sick relative. She asks if there is a police escort. There isn’t, and her worst fears come about when the bus is attacked in the open desert by terrorists from Al Shabaab.  Some of the terrorists start testing passengers for the ability to quote memorized passages from the Koran and look for “infidels”, believing this gets them to Paradise. But most of the Muslims on the bus defend the Christian woman. The film (2.35:1) is shot on location and gives a stunning look at the desert scenery as well as village life.  It is easy to imagine that it could have made as a feature.

Here is a Kenya military scene (Wiki).

The next most important film for me was “DeKalb Elementary” (shown first, directed by Reed Van Dyk, 21 min, USA), which could draw comparisons to “Newtown”.  In a Georgia elementary school, a fat bearded young man (Bo Mitchell) shows up at the reception area of a grade school and pulls out a rifle, acting like he might be a white supremacist terrorist. But the African-American receptionist (Tara Riggs) shows Christian love and actually reinforces his worthiness when he admits his mental illness, and talks him into surrendering to police.

My Nephew Emmett”, (shown third, 19 min) comes from NYU student filmmaker Kevin Wilson, Jr. The story is based on the murder of Emmett Till, 14, in August 1955, by white vigilantes who hunted him down at his great uncle’s (Mose Wright, played by L. B. Williams) home in rural Mississippi, for flirting with a white man’s wife. The home invasion occurs in the middle of the night and reminded me of “Blood Simple”.  The boy is taken and shot, although this case would have fit well into the late Gode Davis’s incomplete “American Lynching”. One problem: it’s late summer, but the trees are shown bare.

The Silent Child” (shown second, 21 min, UK. Directed Chris Overton.) shows a social worker (Rachel Shenton, who wrote the screenplay) assigned to help a deaf child Libby (Maisy Sly) about to enter school.  She wants to emphasize sign language and lip reading, but the family objects to taking the time.

The Eleven O’Clock”, shown fourth, 14 min, by Derin Seale (Australia) shows a psychiatric appointment where the doctor and patient argue about who is which. It spreads to the front office.

(Posted: Friday, February 9, 2018, at 8:30 PM EST)

Photo above: northern Mississippi, May 2014, my trip.

“Land of Mine”: Allies treat German teenage prisoners of war as personally responsible for what Hitler made them do

Land of Mine”, as a title in English, is a pun; the original title of this film by Martin Zandvliet is “Under Sand” (“Unter dem Sand”  or “Under Sandet”) tells us more, that this is a movie centered around landmines buried “On the Beach”.

In May 1945, just about the time that German surrenders, Danish NCO Sgt, Carl Ramussen (Roland Moller) is tasked by Allied lieutenant Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) to supervise a task of captured German POW’s to low-crawl the beach and defuse every landmine with a careful procedure. The Germans had apparently expected D-Day on the Danish coast.

The prisoners are mostly teenage boys (they look young and physically vulnerable, even fungible) , and they are forced to work without food for a long time, and locked into their barracks a night, not even able to pee.  Ramussen says he is not their friend, and that he doesn’t care about them personally.

But what seems even more remarkable is that he talks as if he (and all the other Danes) hold the boys personally, each and every one, responsible for what the Germans (that is, Hitler) did. The treatment of the boys would violate the Geneva convention.

In time, there are casualties and death.  It’s horrible.  But the boys have maps, and one of the boys invents a tool to help find the mines faster.  The boys have been promised they can go home to Germany after they finish.

But when Ebbe returns, the Sergeant has finally started to have some empathy for the boys.  When Ebbe insists on keeping the survivors (after a horrible “accident” which may have been set up) the Sergeant has, for him, an unprecedented moral dilemma.

The film was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars.

Info Table:

Name:  “Land of Mine”
Director, writer:  Martin Zandvliet
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts Fairfax, 2017/3/11, afternoon, large audience (theater remodeled with reclining seats and digital projection)
Length:  100
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official

(Picture: Ocean City, MD, mine, 2010)

(Posted: Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EST)

Oscar nominated documentary shorts for 2017: 3 of the films deal with refugees

The Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts is playing right now at Landmark West End Cinema in Washington D.C. I attended the 1:30 PM showing and it’s a good thing I bought the ticket online because it sold out. The theater has installed rocking chairs, so seating capacity is lower.

The presentation started with “Joe’s Violin” (directed Kahane Cooperman, 24 minutes). The film is a biography of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold. When he is 8, his family is moved to western Poland as the Nazis invade. He managed to “escape” with the Russians but some other family members went to Nazi camps and did not survive. But, at 17, after World War II, he was taken to one of Stalin’s labor camps after leaving his violin behind. Somehow he was able to buy the violin back for cigarettes. Years later he donated it to a school for girls in the Bronx, NY. A student named Brianna Perez would be able to play it. The film shows her playing Solveig’s song from Grieg’s Pier Gynt. But somehow the film title and subject matter remind me of John Madden’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001).

“Extremis” was reviewed here Sept. 17, 2016.

4.1 Miles” (directed by Daphne Matziaraki, 24 minutes, New York Times Op-Doc) follows Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos as he rescues refugees fleeing Turkey for the island of Lesbos (for which lesbianism is named) in a vessel that shipwrecks. He says he has no training in CPR. Once the refugees land, the townspeople have no practical choice but to take care of and house them.

There was an intermission before the remaining two films, dealing with Aleppo.

Watani: My Homeland” (directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen, 39 minutes) seems to be almost the same film as “Children of Syria” shown on PBS in April 2016 and reviewed here on a legacy blog. I’ll note that the children mention that their new town Goslar is losing population due to not enough kids and too many old people.

“White Helmets” was reviewed here Oct. 6, 2016

(Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

Oscar nominations for 2017, short films, live action: focus on social solidarity, also on immigration in 2 films

The Oscar nominated short films “live action” did tend to emphasize social solidarity and generosity.  I saw the program at Landmark E Street in Washington DC (as distributed by Magnolia Pictures).

Sing” (no connection to the animated feature) or “Mindenki” (Hungary, directed and written by Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy, 25 minutes) centers around a children’s choir intending to tour the world. Young Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is pulled aside by the teacher Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi) and asked to mime in concerts because her singing just isn’t good enough.  Now, many people who are talented in instruments (like piano) don’ t have good singing voices. But Zsofi shares her shame in whispers.  Eventually, at a big concert, the kids show solidarity (at personal risk for their own futures) by miming, to keep some kids from being excluded.  It turns out well, but what if it hadn’t.  Radical solidarity matters most when it costs you something.

Silent Nights” (Denmark, by Aske Bang, 30 minutes) is the meatiest film of the set, exploring the quandaries of helping and even hosting refugees.  Inger (Marlene Beltoft Olsen) takes care of her mother (with dementia and incontinence) at home and still volunteers in a Copenhagen homeless shelter, many of whose clients are migrants from Africa and the Middle East.  Kwame (Prince Yaw A[[iah), from Ghana, after being turned out in the cold when the shelter is full, returns.  The film shows Kwame making cell calls home, talking to his family needing money sent for grandfather’s operation, but Kwame needs a job first.  When Kwame gets assaulted and robbed by some Middle Eastern men uttering racist and Islamist slurs, Inger takes an interest in him.  She maintains that interest even after Kwame gets caught with petty theft from the shelter (to find money to send home) on security cameras.  They fall in love, and eventually Inger proposes marriage so he can stay.  But then she learns he is already married with kids in Ghana.  This film needed to be a feature, as the shift in attitudes by Inger are too choppy to be credible.  But the film makes you think about the risks involved in helping refugees and asylum seekers.

Timecode” (Spain, 15 min., by Juanjo Gimenez Pena”) is a comedy set in a Madrid parking garage, where attendants find excuses to practice their dance moves (almost break dancing), reminding me of “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004).

Enemies Within” (France, 27 min., “Ennemis Interieurs”, by Selim Azzazi), presents an immigration interrogation, or “extreme vetting” (as per Donald Trump, who will like this film) by a young security officer in the 1990s of an Algerian national trying to move back to France.  The history of “The Battle of Algiers” gets reviewed.  The point that Algeria used to be part of the actual land mass of France is well made.  Nevertheless, the young officer starts to find evidence of possible terror associations.  In the end, this turns out to be an exercise of “naming names”.  But of course people already in the country (like people with overstayed visas in the US) can complicate the security threats.

La femme et le TGV” (Switzerland, 30 min, by Timo von Gunten) is a substantial comedy.  A lonely woman Elise (Jane Birkin), who runs a chocolate shop (like the film “Chocolat”) lives near a high-speed rail line (the TGV)  In an inversion of the plot of “The Girl on the Train”, she keeps finding handwritten notes in her yard from Bruno (Gilles Tschudi) the train engineer, who waves. She is stuck and time and says she will never “send an Internet”.   In the meantime, a somewhat charismatic and attractive young man (Nicolas Heini) offers to help her modernize her business.  When the train route changes, the young man takes her to meet Bruno in Zurich.  This is supposed to be a true story, about modernization.  There is a twist.

Wikipedia link for panorama of Copenhagen which I visited in 1972.

(Posted: Friday, February 10, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)