Last week the Tivoli Cinemas opened this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts. It was a somber lineup. There wasn’t much frivolity on display.
Things turn even more serious with the opening of the documentary shorts. Immigration, the war in Syria, end-of-life-ethics: These are among the hot-button topics examined by these terrific films.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself choking back sobs.
The five nominees are presented in one program with a brief intermission about halfway through.
All are spectacular, but they are listed with the very best on top.
Today the words “humanitarian crisis” are so frequently invoked that they’ve almost ceased to have any power. Daphne Matziaraki’s brutally powerful “4.1 Miles” reminds us of just what they mean.
Her film follows a Greek coast guard crew led by Kyriakos Papadopoulos. They patrol 4.1 miles of open sea between Turkey and the island of Lesbos. The doc begins with the rescue of a boatload of Middle Eastern refugees swamped by high waves. Surrounded by wailing women and sobbing children who cover almost every inch of his deck, Papadopoulos works frantically to perform CPR on two children found floating with their mother.
(Do they survive? We don’t know … and neither does the coast guardsman. As soon as he delivers them to an ambulance on the pier, Papadopoulos turns his boat seaward, where more refugees are floundering.)
Basically he’s on 24-hour call. The Turkish smugglers who traffic in human misery don’t care about weather reports; they’ll take refugees out in the worst storms knowing that the Greek coast guard will be there risking their own lives to effect rescues.
Papadopoulos is a man of action. But in reflective moments he’s a study in sorrow.
“When I look in their eyes,” he says of the refugees, “I see their memories of war.
“This is a nightmare. This is agony.”
Get out your hankies. “Joe’s Violin” will have you in tears. But that’s a good thing.
Kahane Cooperman’s doc is about the violin owned by Joseph Feingold, a Polish Holocaust survivor who bought it at a German flea market after the war (he traded a carton of cigarettes for it). Feingold moved to New York and played the violin intermittently over the years, then donated it to a musical instrument drive sponsored by a classical radio station.
It ended up in the hands of Brianna Perez, a seventh-grader at a Bronx school for immigrant girls. She cherishes the instrument, not just for the beauty of its sound but for the story of hope and triumph it represents.
I’d write more about this terrific little movie, but I need to blow my nose.
Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter works in the ICU of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. Her job is to help people die.
Dan Krauss’ “Extremis” provides almost unbearably intimate access to patients facing their final hours, their families and the physicians who care for them. At its heart is the agonizing question of whether to prolong a life with extraordinary and often painful extreme measures. The patients must make that decision; if they can’t, it’s up to family members.
It’s a gut-wrenching situation. And this doc explores profound questions with fly-on-the-wall immediacy. Pleasant? No. But most of us will deal with this precise situation one day.
“Watani: My Homeland”
The plight of one Syrian family illuminates a much larger situation in Marcel Mettelsiefen’s “Watani: My Homeland.”
The film begins in 2015 with Aleppo resident Abu Ali telling the camera, “I have sacrificed my children for the revolution.” Now his family lives in a city under siege.
His wife, Hala, does her best to make life seem normal. She gives the kids cough medicine so they can sleep through bombings. The youngsters become experts at identifying guns by their sounds and at judging the distance from which the shots are coming. After a while they get used to the violence.
“There’s no need to be scared of anything,” one of the little girls says, “because there’s nothing left in our lives anymore.”
When Abu vanishes, snatched from his office by an ISIS squad, Hala makes a major decision.
Not knowing if her husband is dead or alive, she and the kids embark on a long trip to Turkey and then on to Germany, where they are resettled in a quaint provincial town. Slowly normalcy creeps back into their lives.
“I know German swear words now,” one of the girls boasts to cousins back in Syria during a Skype session.
The teenage Helen puts away her hijab and jokes that her mom now thinks she’s an infidel. Her brother Hammoudi feels guilty about abandoning Syria: “I will certainly return … no one can ever completely leave their homeland.”
Meanwhile, their father is still missing.
“The White Helmets”
Syria’s White Helmets are volunteer rescue squads who dig for survivors in the rubble left after air raids.
They are everyday men like Khalid Farah, Abu Omar and Mohammed Farah who, like firefighters, rush into the flames.
One of them, a former anti-government fighter, says: “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.”
Digging through the unstable ruins of bombed-out buildings is inherently dangerous. The White Helmets’ job is exponentially scarier because aircraft of the Syrian Air Force and their Russian allies often return to the scene in a deliberate attempt to kill the rescuers.
Orlando von Einsiedel’s film follows a group of White Helmets both on the ground in Syria and during a weeklong training session in nearby Turkey. One man marvels that an artificial border can mean the difference between safety and death.
Even while out of the country they continue to get reports of the carnage back home. A White Helmet learns that his brother has been killed in an air raid.
This is real-life heroism of an exceptionally high order.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Oscar-nominated documentary shorts
Not rated. Time: 2:41