Monday, February 26, 2024

Can Anyone Predict 5 For 5? – Exploring The 2023 Best Documentary Short Film Oscar Shortlist

In many ways, Best Documentary Short is the most difficult short film category to predict at the Oscars. Almost all of the 15 shorts to choose from relate to some hot social or political topics, so it’s tough to know which direction the voters will choose. Plenty of big names are in the mix this year, with former winners like Ben Proudfoot, celebrity producers like Dwayne Wade, and industry legends like Sheila Nevins. The subjects range from book banning and the war in Ukraine to hand games and dancing grandmas. Let’s dive into all fifteen of the shorts in an effort to predict which five will become Oscar nominees on January 23rd.

Often, it just so happens that the shorts of the catchiest names get nominated. “The ABCs of Book Banning” certainly has that going for it, especially with how much of a lightning rod book banning has been in America over the last two years. Documentary legend Sheila Nevins directs this short documentary, interviewing kids about books banned in many parts of America. The film explicitly highlights quotes from a large variety of these books, while the children’s comments showcase the absurdity of many of them being off-limits. While it’s an undeniably important topic, the filmmaking is a bit underwhelming. Using only children as interviewees leaves the subject a bit unexplored, while the design for each of the book highlights doesn’t look great. Nevertheless, Nevins is one of the biggest names in the documentary world, winning an astounding 32 Emmys during her time at HBO, but she’s never been nominated for an Oscar. Those credentials, with the urgency of the subject matter, sound like a nomination waiting to happen.

Over at HBO, “How We Get Free” follows Elisabeth Epps’ journey to abolish cash bail in Colorado. It’s a ground-level documentary, trailing Epps doing the hard work to support people stuck in poor situations. Shot over the course of two years, the film initially sees Epps helping to free incarcerated individuals who need help to make bail. Eventually, Epps takes her mission into politics as time passes, running for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives. She makes a powerful case for abolition, and the film finds just the right balance between information and storytelling. HBO hasn’t scored a nomination here since 2017’s “Traffic Stop,” but this is a compelling film with an excellent subject.

Ramin Bahrani scored an Academy Award nomination in Best Adapted Screenplay for “The White Tiger” back in 2021. Still, he’s also directed a number of short (and feature) documentaries over the years. This year, his film “If Dreams Were Lightning: Rural Healthcare Crisis” landed on the shortlist. Bahrani investigates the decline of rural hospitals, interviewing those who have struggled without proper care and a handful of people trying to get them access to it. It’s a damning portrait of the American Dream, as people dying from treatable illnesses still cling to the idea that this is freedom. This is a strong documentary, especially the way that Bahrani lets them speak for themselves, their own words enough of a condemnation of the system. There’s tough competition this year, especially with big political subjects, but this could easily score a nomination.

The battle for abortion rights in America has been raging for decades, but the overturning of Roe V. Wade in June 2022 ignited an even greater fight to protect women’s rights. “Deciding Vote” is a remarkable piece of untold, or rarely told, history behind one of the strongest pieces of abortion legislation in the 20th century. In a contentious challenge to pass a bill protecting women’s rights, George Michaels, a New York state representative, cast the deciding vote to pass the bill. He had promised constituents he wouldn’t pass it and tanked his political career, but he cast the vote he believed in. It’s a surprising story of standing on principles, something we rarely see in American politics. The short somewhat reminded me of “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” which was nominated in the category last year. Though the subject matter is wildly different, they both relied largely on pre-existing footage to tell a political story. Though I wouldn’t be shocked for it to get nominated, other stories seem like they would compel voters more urgently.

Swiss short “Bear” tells a story of a distinctly different variety, though it centers around the assaulting male gaze. A man had spent years of his life filming constantly, capturing random moments of life. He filmed much of his time spent in the woods, camping, and encountering wildlife. He also captured moments in the city, street life, and the like. He’s delivered his footage to a film student, Morgane Gaëlle Frund, the director and narrator of this film. She’s tasked with editing his footage into a film, but she quickly discovers disturbing, voyeuristic footage he’s taken of women on the street without their permission. Footage of feet, zooming in on women’s chests, even following women for a period of time. “Bear” is a brilliant feat of editing. It’s disturbing to watch as a viewer, as seeing any of this footage feels wrong. The poetic editing pairs this uncomfortable storyline with the nature footage, tying his acts to those of dangerous predators. This remarkable short is even more special in contrast to many of the more polished studio documentaries on this list. That could appeal to the same voters who nominated “How Do You Measure a Year?” last year.

Three films on the list cover geopolitical clashes, but “Island In Between” is a much more lyrical, charming look at the tension between Taiwan and China than expected. Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang reflects on his relationship to Taiwan and China from his time on the island of Kinmen. This small island is a county of Taiwan, but located only six miles from the mainland of China, which surrounds it on three sides. The film is more thoughtful than political, taking a look at what it’s like to be a human engulfed in the uncertainty these conflicts provide.

Netflix has had at least one nomination for Best Documentary Short every year since 2016. While they only have one film on the shortlist this year, it’s tough to bet against the streaming juggernaut. Not only that, but “Camp Courage” powerfully personalizes the trauma of the war in Ukraine. The short sets itself apart from more broad-reaching feature documentaries like “20 Days in Mariupol” by focusing more on recovery in the midst of the war. After a young girl is displaced and injured in the war, she heads to a summer camp with other refugees from the crisis. There, with her grandmother, they test their bravery, seeking to overcome the challenges they’ve faced. The short is sweet, albeit a bit surface-level. Even so, it’s likely a safe bet for a nomination.

Kevin MacDonald won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature back in 2000 before moving into narrative features, including directing Forrest Whittaker to an Oscar win for “The Last King of Scotland.” He’s back in the Oscar race this year with “Last Song From Kabul,” a short that highlights the immense loss at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A group of women, all musicians, are forced to flee from the country as the Taliban begins their takeover. Music is banned, while women aren’t allowed to receive an education. It encapsulates so much of their resiliency and the power of music and art, regardless of what stands in its way. The ending, showcasing a concert with the women, is undeniably powerful. This could stick in the minds of voters.

While Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers last co-directed the Academy Award-nominated Documentary Short “A Concerto is a Conversation” in 2021, Proudfoot went solo to direct “The Queen of Basketball.” He won the Oscar in this category back in 2022. The directors have paired together again for “The Last Repair Shop,” another documentary highlighting the power of music and how it can change lives. As the title suggests, it’s set in a music repair shop that services and provides instruments for kids in public school. Through profiling a few of the people who work at the shop and what drives them, “The Last Repair Shop” personalizes how vital music is, especially in the lives of kids. Proudfoot is clearly a favorite of this branch by now, so it seems a bit unfathomable that “The Last Repair Shop” would miss a nomination. Could he win two Oscars in three years? That’s an entirely different question.

While many of these shorts highlight important social or political issues in grim ways, “Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games” is full of joy and power. One of ESPN’s “30 for 30” shorts, this documentary educates on the history of hand games and how black women have passed these traditions down for generations. It delves into music and storytelling, showing how something so seemingly simple can impact culture in big ways. The short certainly takes a more educational angle as opposed to telling a story; it’s still a fascinating subject well told.

Hailing from Emmy winner John Hoffman and co-director Christine Turner, “The Barber of Little Rock” is unbelievably compelling. A man named Arlo Washington has set out to change his community. The racial wealth gap in America is immense, and it doesn’t look like politicians are addressing it anytime soon. Arlo built a barber’s school in Little Rock and is working to give his community the skills and opportunities they need to change their futures. It’s incredible to watch one man on a mission to change lives – and succeed. Well, they filmed it, with strong storytelling and many emotional moments. “The Barber of Little Rock” is one of the most compelling shorts in the bunch and could easily land among the five nominees.

“Wings of Dust” is on-the-ground reporting on the ecological crisis in Peru. Vidal Merma is an independent journalist who stands up for the indigenous people suffering at the hands of a corrupt government in bed with a disastrous mining company. The short shows his work, documenting the harmful river water, the contaminated land, and how mining destroys the land. In the face of immense challenges, Merma takes every opportunity to speak truth to power but often finds himself shut down. The short itself doesn’t have a strong narrative flow, making it feel a little longer than it needs to be, but this is excellent journalistic work that brings urgency to the crisis.

While not directly about the climate crisis, “Between Earth & Sky” follows ecologist Nalini Nadkarni as she studies plant life. She’s a pioneer of climbing techniques to explore rainforest canopies and how life grows back after disasters. Hearing her genuine passion and energy about her work is inspiring. She’s a fascinating subject, often jumping from one topic to the next, but her impact on the field is compelling, helping to bring the audience in, even if they aren’t very science-savvy. The imagery is lovely, but the energy is infectious. Despite the beautiful work, it’s not the most hard-hitting documentary on the list, so it may suffer for that.

One of the few shorts that doesn’t comment directly on political subjects, “Oasis” chronicles the relationship between a pair of twin brothers. One of the brothers has special needs, and their relationship is shifting as the boys enter their teenage years. When they’re around other kids, we see how the disability puts a strain on developing friendships with other kids. Yet, during a summer on their own at a lake, their beautiful bond is so clear. This is melancholic and rhapsodic, with powerful editing that tells the story with complex layers of emotion, hinting at what their future might hold. This is a unique documentary. It doesn’t hold the same level of urgency as some others, but it’s so well done.

Disney+ enters the fray with the most light-hearted short on the list. “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is such a delight. A grandson films his two grandmas and helps them embrace their sillier side. These ladies are hilarious and go along with their grandson’s crazy filming ideas. They dance around, crack jokes, and yell at each other for their stinky farts. It’s so cute, but the throughline of love underneath the entire film makes it even stronger. This joyful documentary could get in on that alone, but it’s told with such style and admiration that voters will surely gravitate toward it. With such a heavy crop of films, this one stands out.

It’s tough to bet against recent nominees like Proudfoot and Bowers, so “The Last Repair Shop” seems safely in. Similarly, though Nevins hasn’t been nominated, I think she found exactly the right subject matter to land a nomination with “The ABCs of Book Banning.” Those two feel like the safest bets, along with saving a spot for Netflix. Their “Camp Courage” is likely in unless their long streak of nominations is ending.

From there, the predictions get more challenging. The pure joy of “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” along with just how much it stands out from the rest of the field, should secure it a place on the list. Ramin Bahrani’s compelling “If Dreams Were Lightning: Rural Healthcare Crisis” is a solid contender, along with Kevin MacDonald’s “Last Song From Kabul.” Nevertheless, I think the voters could gravitate toward “The Barber of Little Rock” instead, as it communicates such a clear change in a community. However, this is a strong field of shortlisted shorts, so it’s anyone’s game.

Below are my favorites on the shortlist and my predicted five nominees.

Predicted Nominees:

1. The Last Repair Shop
2. The ABCs of Book Banning
3. The Barber of Little Rock
4. Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó
5. Camp Courage

My Personal Favorites:

1. Oasis
2. The Baber of Little Rock
3. Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó
4. If Dreams Were Lightning: Rural Healthcare Crisis
5. Bear

What do you think will be nominated for Best Live-Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howat
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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