2016 Oscar Circuit: Best Documentary (Short Subject)

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Welcome to our annual Oscar Circuit series, our deep down look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of AwardsCircuit.com will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races.  If you miss a piece, click on the tag titled Oscar Circuit 2016. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your predicted winners in the comment section too!

Best Documentary (Short Subject) joins the Best Live-Action Short category in being, to the layman, the races that help make our break those really close betting pools. But to an up-and-coming filmmaker, or the non-professional dedicating a huge portion of their own money, effort and time to a small film solely motivated by personal passion, these are the times when the Academy truly looks out for “the little guy” (for that reason alone, some Oscar pundits clearly despise these categories). Dominated by the United States Armed Forces in its earliest years, many distinguished filmmakers like Charles Guggenheim, Saul Bass, Kary Antholis, Bill Guttentag, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy found their shining moment with the Academy right here. The five nominees this years are…

Body Team 12 – David Darg and Bryn Mooser

Body Team 12

Those of you joining Editor Clayton Davis in your disappointment that Olivia Wilde was passed over for an Oscar nomination (or, really, recognition anywhere from anyone) for her performance in Meadowland can take some solace in the fact that Body Team 12, of which she is credited as an executive producer, was selected out of 74 submissions to be nominated here and stands a good chance of winning. The title refers to a team of medical professionals employed by the Red Cross whose specific duties are to handle and dispose of the bodies ravaged by Ebola in Liberia. It’s a gruesome and disturbing subject that is depicted through the perceptive, doggedly optimistic eyes of Garmai Sumo, the only woman on the team. Despite coming dangerously close to being two documentaries in one, Body Team 12 manages to navigate its interest in Sumo and the Ebola outbreak remarkably well. The result is a movie that has floored audiences – the film won Best Documentary Short at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Now I should note that that doesn’t actually tell us much about its chances at the Oscars. Only two Tribeca Documentary Short winners have ever gone on to be nominated for this award, and none have won yet. However, precedent is really the only thing possibly keeping this otherwise near-unanimously beloved short from Oscar glory.

Chau, beyond the Lines – Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck

Chau beyond the Lines

Courtney Marsh’s Chau, beyond the Lines is about two subjects – the devastating effects of Agent Orange (an herbicidal weapon used by us during the Vietnam War) still being felt by the Vietnamese, and more specifically the effect it had on one teenager trying to overcome the severe disability in his arms and legs to become a professional artist. This was an eight-year labor of love from Marsh, and has paid off with a fairly successful award run – winning prizes from the Austin Film Festival, Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, Irvine International Film Festival and the USA Film Festival. The biggest advantage this film has is history and subject matter; documentary shorts about overcoming personal hardship and/or physical disfigurements are very popular in this category. It certainly “checks off” all the boxes for what would seem like a shoo-in for a victory here, but I just can’t see it overcoming the even more powerful films it’s up against, especially Body Team 12.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah – Adam Benzine

Claude Lanzmann Spectres of the Shoah

Almost thirty years ago to the day that Adam Benzine’s Oscar-nominated documentary short had its world premiere, Claude Lanzmann released arguably one of the most important documentaries ever made (really one of the most important films ever made, period): Shoah. Twelve years of intense study, tracking down and convincing concentration camp survivors to recount their stories, secretly filming former SS Officers, and recording over 220 hours of material resulted in a nine-hour documentary that is as close as we’re going to get to the definitive cinematic chronicle of the Holocaust. Frankly, I’m shocked that Benzine was able to cut down such an immense story of the making of this landmark film to only 40 minutes and include previously unseen footage as well, but he pulls it off. The Academy may feel the desire to recognize this short as a way to honor the life and career of Lanzmann and should be regarded as a possible “dark horse” contender.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

A Girl in the River The Price of Forgiveness

Tina Brown (CBE) is a major journalist who served as the Editor of Vanity Fair for eight years, The New Yorker for six years, and is one of the co-founders of The Daily Beast. Sheila Nevins is the President of HBO Documentary Films and has earned a whopping twenty-nine Primetime Emmys in her career. They served as the producers of A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a woman who has won this award before for Saving Face and has become one of the most distinguished filmmakers in Pakistan. She tackles a subject as harrowing and misogynistic as her previous Oscar-winning short, moving from acid attacks to “honor” killings. Unlike Saving Face, however, A Girl in the River has not been an awards-magnet; this Academy Award nomination is the only outside recognition this film has received so far. But do not discount this one – it has by far one of the most emotionally walloping (and white-knuckle enraging) scenes of any 2015 movie when it depicts a father haughtily talking about how he was justified in attempting to kill his own daughter.

Last Day of Freedom – Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

Last Day of Freedom

My personal favorite of these five shorts, Last Day of Freedom is a real outlier among not only the nominees this year, but also most nominees in this category’s history in being animated. Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman use this unconventional style to explore the inner turmoil of a man faced with protecting his mentally-troubled brother or turning him in to face almost certain execution after he commits a terrible crime. The very existence of this movie should erase any questions as to his eventual decision, but the movie uses his internal struggle to explore with astonishing insight and clarity the morality of the death penalty, mental illness, and the treatment of our war veterans. It has won several important precursors: the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the International Documentary Association. All three of those have had some overlap with Oscar here. On top of that, the Academy could hardly choose a more topical winner in the wake of the prominence of Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in the American political dialogue. The only obstacle to it being the clear frontrunner is its unusual presentation, which might turn off potential voters in favor of one of its equally-harrowing but formally more “accessible”competitors.

  • Damian Pietrzak

    So you think Body Team 12 has this in the bag?