Michelle takes a look at the five nominated Documentary Short films ahead of the Oscars this Sunday!

In all five of the Academy Award nominated Documentary Short Subject films, there is a generally shared notion of being torn apart or ripped away from who you are or what you know, whether it be from disease and illness, war and carnage, or genocide. These films will break your heart, but will also put you into a place of complete and total compassion. Stories of sharing, loss, death, war, sacrifice, and more, these films give us a glimpse of what’s really going on in the world. Three out of the five films focus on those affected by the Syrian war, one focuses on the story of a Holocaust survivor and an immigrant child from the Dominican Republic, and another one focuses on those who are facing death and the family members who most make the decisions for them. The unifying idea between each individual story told through these films is sacrifice. Sacrificing our own lives to save another, sacrificing a prized possession for the benefit of another, sacrificing a home for the chance at a better future elsewhere, and the sacrifice of selfishness and personal interest. I sat in a theater of maybe 40 people and sobbed through each of these films, and that’s an important detail when presenting this review because it’s that sense of community and genuine love for others that makes these shorts profound and dedicated to the story.

Joe’s Violin

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The first film presented in the Documentary Short showcase was Joe’s Violin directed by Kahane Cooperman. Joe’s Violin documents the story of Joseph Feingold, a 91 year old Holocaust survivor starts with his generous donation of his beloved violin to an instrument drive for underprivileged students at a local Bronx school. A thoughtful gesture of donating his favorite instrument is heartwarming enough, but as we discover, the violin isn’t just an instrument. At 17 years old, Feingold purchased the violin with a carton of cigarettes after his time in a labor camp. His family was torn apart and sent to different camps across Europe, and only a few managed to survive. The violin was a symbol of freedom and safety, but also served as comfort for Joseph as he was reminded of his life before the Holocaust stole it from him. Throughout his life the violin carried the spirit of his mother, who was killed in a concentration camp, and gave him hope. His donation centers on the intention of sharing that hope with a student, but the story of individual receiving the violin comes to light as we meet Brianna, a 12 year old who lives in the Bronx and attends the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a charter school for underprivileged children who are mainly from immigrant families. A school where their admission is based on lottery, the administrators decide to carefully select Brianna as the recipient of Joe’s violin based on her progress, her dedication, and her story. The organize a meeting between Brianna and Joe, and this is where you might want to grab a tissue. Brianna learned Solveig’s Song, the song that Joe’s mother would sing to him. It’s an overwhelming sensation of unity, compassion, and understanding between the two. Music transcends their age gap, their origin stories, their ethnicities, and their experience. A friendship is formed, a story lives on, and the power of Joe’s violin will carry on from student to student once Brianna has graduated from the program.

It reminds me of where we are in this country in terms of unity and support through a stark divide created by the rhetoric of our current president. It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are, what you believe in, or where you sit on the economic scale. What matters most is communicating love and acceptance, and Joe’s violin will do that for years to come. It shows the significance of the arts and how vital music is in both Joe and Brianna’s lives. The violin not only helped Joe thrive but it saved him over the years, and although under different terms and conditions, it will do the same for a young girl in the Bronx. This was personally my favorite of the five nominated films, and maybe that comes with being the first I saw during the screening, but it really stuck with me.

Extremis

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Extemis follows a doctor as she navigates through her busy schedule of having uncomfortable conversations with the family members of near-death patients. Dr. Jessica Sitter does an incredible job at holding family units together while delivering the often tragic news that very little can be done to saved their loved ones. Remaining firm and direct, but never wavering her sensitivity and empathy, Zitter lets us into a world that doesn’t feel entirely foreign. Situations like this may have occurred in the audience’s lives already or will sometime down the road, as unfortunate as that may be. Extremis does a beautiful job of never feeling intrusive to the families who are struggling with making these difficult decisions, and actually appropriately lets the audience examine the difference between some reactions. There is a soft, caring brother who patiently receives the information from doctors and relays it over to his dying sister and a young daughter who fails to acknowledge the medical reasoning due to her optimism that the heartbeat of her mother signifies her will to live. These two individual stories are intimately portrayed and without trying too hard, Extremis delivers a genuinely moving film that stands within its own strength.

4.1 Miles

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Off the coast of the Greek island Lesbos, Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos makes a daily rescue of Syrian refugees making the dangerous trek of 4.1 miles from Turkey to Lesbos. This short graphic and heartbreaking, as Kyriakos and his crew fight the conditions of the water to rescues countless refugees each day. Young children, their parents, the elderly, etc. drenched and cold pile up onto the boat every day. There is one scene in particular that I have been unable to stop thinking about. Graphically a young child is hung upside down by her feet, naked, as rescuers fight to slap the water out of her lungs. It’s anxiety inducing and a total nail-biting moment, because we don’t know if she will survive, we don’t know if this is our first experience at seeing the same loss that Kyriakos and his crew members see on a daily basis.The struggles of Kyriakos crew and of the refugees is not sugarcoated in this film and rightfully so. The audience is able to experience the intensity and the sacrifice made by those who are fleeing and those who are rescuing through handheld camerawork that is often shaky and reactive to the action within the shot. The sea that Kyriakos loves so much has become a site of tragedy, as thousands of lives are lost every single day, and the mourning is warranted for all of the loss the island of Lesbos has seen in life, in happiness, and in serenity.

Watani My Homeland

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Watani My Homeland explores the devastating and tragic move from Aleppo to Germany for a family after their father was captured by ISIS. The audience is first introduced to the family of four young children who live on the frontlines of the Syrian War, since their father is a member of the revolution. Sounds of explosion, gunfire, and terror serve as the score while the children play and pretend to be like their father. It might seem unconventional and wrong to allow children to reenact war and even play with replica guns, but it must be understood that this is all they know. Their lives have existed solely based on the war surrounding them. They have a lack of traditional education, a home that is amongst torn down buildings, a continuous flow of noises coming from machine guns, explosives, and jets flying over their home. The tale of war is seen through their innocent eyes and we never lose sight of that throughout the film. Once their father is captured by ISIS, their mother decides to move to Germany with the children, because the government is offering housing and subsidies for refugees in an effort to combat their dying population. Over three years we watch the children grow and see the reflection of war and starting over has on them. The children begin to learn English and make friends at their schools, seemingly adjusting well. Their mother struggles to accept her new life and feels her husband’s absence the most. The sacrifice she has made is apparent and acknowledged by even the youngest of her children. The imbalance between preserving their culture and traditions and incorporating the new world they live in is exemplified in all of the children, especially the oldest daughter who has embraced her new freedom. Watani My Homeland is one of three films within this series that deals with the Syrian war and refugees, but it is woven within this narrative the true tragedy of war and its victims.

The White Helmets

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The White Helmets documents the story of the volunteer civilians who risk their lives on a daily basis to rescue victims from the rubble in Syria. The White Helmets, as they are known, are a collective of civilians who volunteer for the job with little to no training are officially called the Syrian Civil Defense. They must leave their families for a month to train in Turkey, and once they return, they are faced with absolute destruction and carnage. The film shows the Helmets rushing to the scene of a building that had just exploded. Without hesitation, they rush into the building looking for victims and survivors and pulling them from the wreckage. Through a series of individual testimonies, we are able to understand the unique and admirable strength in these workers. They tell stories of their personal lives, their families, and their job and it is through complete emotional sincerity. At one point, the White Helmets rescued a newborn baby from the debris who ended up surviving the incident. They gave the baby a nickname of “The Miracle Baby” and he unofficially became the mascot for the White Helmets. It’s in the strength of community and faith that make it possible for the White Helmets to continuously do what they do, without demand for reward or recognition. The film ends with a statement of the number of White Helmets who have died since 2013. That number is 130. One hundred and thirty men and women have given their lives for the safety and security of their community. As mentioned in the film, the White Helmets have a saying that goes “To save one life, is to save all of humanity.” It’s admirable, beautiful, heartwarming, and easy to connect with the White Helmets. This film was the most inspiring of the five, and if you’re anything like me, you might leave the screening with a spark in you to be better and do something more to support others.