Black Sheep – Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn
This is a weird one. Black Sheep is as much a narrative film as it is a documentary since half of the film is reenactment. The film is divided between a direct into the camera interview with Cornelius Walker and reenactments of his life as he explores the prejudice that caused him to bleach his skin, straighten his hair, and wear blue contact lenses in an effort to fit in with his racist neighbors in Essex. The film is an intriguing examination of acceptance and tokenism as Cornelius befriends his former bullies and even joins in the harassment of other African immigrants. His friends extol their hated of “immigrant scum” and violently assault non-whites, shouting at them to go back to Africa, all while assuring Cornelius that they don’t mean him. Your support of this one will largely depend on if you think Cornelius is himself a sympathetic figure and don’t see the reenactments as a violation of the documentary spirit.
End Game – Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
End Game covers similar territory to another Netflix short subject documentary from a few years ago, Extremis. Both deal with families confronting end of life care for their loved ones, but End Game is superior in every way. Epstein and Feldman follow multiple patients and families as they plan for death in hospitals, in hospice, and at home. There were a lot of tears flowing in the audience during this one, but it’s not dire and depressing. It’s a film about personal choices and finding as much dignity in death as possible. It’s never judgmental and endlessly empathetic as it covers a topic that too many among us naively assume we’ll somehow never have to face.
A Night at the Garden – Marshall Curry
By far the shortest of the nominees, A Night at the Garden clocks in at seven minutes while many of its competitors stretch to or pass a half-hour. The film is comprised of archival footage from a 1939 pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in the run-up to World War II. A crowd of 20,000 people watch as Fritz Kuhn delivers a speech supporting Adolf Hitler and espousing an America for white gentiles only. The film’s most chilling moments come as a Jewish protestor is tackled, stripped, and beaten while the crowd cheers. It’s a chilling reminder that fascism and Nazism have been supported in America before, and an obvious call to not ignore today’s neo-Nazi resurgence.
Lifeboat – Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser
Much like End Game, Lifeboat also harkens back to a previous nominee, 2017’s 4.1 Miles. Both deal with the plight of refugees left adrift on the open seas as they attempt to escape warfare and death in their homelands, and, again, this year’s nominee is an improvement on what came before. The film crew follows a charity-funded lifeboat as they encounter and attempt to save as many refugees as possible. On the film’s single day of filming they encounter four overcrowded vessels and save hundreds of refugees from wooden boats and rubber rafts before sinking the vessels to prevent their reuse. The film is a testament to the hard work and humanity of the aid workers who devote their lives to such a harrowing, under-supported job because they can’t stand to look away, but Lifeboat also takes the time to interview numerous refugees in an attempt to understand what would drive a person to take such desperate action when there’s a 1-in-12 chance of death.
Period. End of Sentence. – Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton
The onset of menstruation represents a major problem for the women of India, forcing many of them to drop out of school. The subject is still a major taboo as evidenced by many interviewees’ reluctance to even talk about it. Enter a machine that makes low-cost disposable sanitary napkins, and the women who produce and sell them in an effort to improve hygiene and empower women. The men in Period. End of Sentence. come off as rubes as they answer the interviewer’s questions. “A period? Like, a class period?” One asks. The exception is the machine’s creator who comes off a genuine hero without taking the film away from its feminine focus. The machine’s results are empowering, granting the women cheap access to sanitation and economic opportunity. Our heroines do a school demonstration for a group of girls and immediately sell out their supply of pads on the first day. This was an absolute crowd pleaser.
1. Period. End of Sentence.
2. End Game
3. A Night at the Garden
5. Black Sheep
What it Means: This is an excellent group of nominees, and none of them would be a disappointing winner. Period. End of Sentence. seems like an obvious choice. It’s cheerful, empowering, and gives voters the chance to highlight women (including the film’s two female directors) in a year where gender diversity has been a big Oscar issue. It reminds me of when the uplifting spirit of The White Helmets carried it to victory two years ago. My secondary pick is A Night at the Garden which is both thankfully short and feels disturbingly prescient. It would not be a surprise if it wins.