Can’t commit to a watching a feature length doco? These short films are for you.
A Greek Coast Guard boat pulling hundreds of refugees from the sea every day, life and death decisions being made in an intensive care unit, a father kidnapped by ISIS and an escape to Germany, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and his violin, and the men risking their lives to stay in a war zone and be first on call when disaster strikes. These are the documentary short films that have been nominated for Best Short Film category at the upcoming Oscars, and you can watch most of them either below, or online with a little digging.
Daphne Matziaraki’s film 4.1 Miles only goes for 21 minutes, but that’s all it needs to get the message across. Matziaraki spent three weeks on a Greek Coast Guard boat in the area adjacent to Lesbos off the coast of Turkey. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, the captain of the boat, is desperate. They are saving hundreds of people from the water every single day, people who would rather pile themselves in flimsy boats that often sink, than stay in their war-torn homes. Perhaps the most distressing scene is when the boat is called to rescue a lifeboat that is so overloaded with people it’s a wonder how they managed to float at all. Matziaraki stays at the head of the boat, capturing the screams and fear on the people’s faces as they’re pulled one by one onto the Coast Guard boat. All of a sudden, the women start screaming in horror—a mother and her two children have fallen into the water, and while they’re eventually pulled to safety it becomes clear pretty fast things aren’t good. The camera stays away from the scene unfolding on the back of the boat as the mother and children are pulled onboard, but the furious pumping of the captain mid-CPR is heartbreaking enough. The children are unconscious, with water coming from their mouths, and though an ambulance is called they are still 10-15 minutes from land. It’s really heavy stuff. The scale of people attempting the crossing, compared with the number of Greek boats to deal with it (4 or 5) is astounding: “Every hour that goes by, 10 of us are asked to rescue an influx of 200 people,” says the captain. This film is a pretty stark reminder that beyond the posturing and bullshit of governments all around the world there are real people who are dying trying to escape unlivable conditions in their native countries, and world leaders are doing far too little about it.
The White Helmets
There’s a big difference between reading about atrocities in Syria and actually seeing them. Knowing the numbers (400, 000 killed, millions displaced) is enough to shock anyone. But nothing is as crushing as what this film will show you. The White Helmets are a group of everyday Syrians—the once bakers, mechanics and even those who’ve defected from the Assad military forces—who are first on the scene when bombs explode. They search collapsed buildings, act as firefighters, and unearth dead bodies from the devastation, and it’s dangerous work. The first scene of the movie is an instant jolt, as you see the White Helmets respond to a Russian bomb attack that has destroyed a building. They rush to the scene and into the destruction to search for survivors, and find children in the wreckage. As they are pulling them out, another explosion is both seen and heard from a volunteer POV camera, and the screen goes black. There’s been a “double tap” attack and a bomb has been dropped intentionally in the same spot, a few minutes after the first.
The White Helmets (which you can watch in full on Netflix) is the combined efforts of Orlando Von Einsiedel and cinematographer Khaled Khateeb, who shot all the footage in Aleppo. They’ve done an incredible job with this movie, particularly in featuring the three main protagonists: Mohammed, Khaled and Abu Omar. Seeing them receive news of their relatives being killed while they’re away at training camp, and fearing for their own children as they pull others from the rubble—it’s not easy to relate to them, but it’s easy to share in their heartbreak. The film tries really hard to show a slight sense of hope, such as the scene where the men pull a newborn baby from the concrete rubble after surviving for 16 hours underneath it, or the fact that men refuse to give up despite the situation worsening every day. At the end of the 40 minutes of some of the most horrible footage I’ve ever seen, it was hard to share in the optimism, but I’m calling it. This one’s the Oscar winner.
24 minutes in an intensive care unit is as heavy as it sounds. Extremis explores one of the biggest moral dilemmas that a person can possibly face in their lifetime; whether or not to keep a loved one on life support, or to switch it off. The film doesn’t aim to reach a definitive answer, but it gives both sides of the argument in a non-fence-sitting kinda way. Extremis immerses you in the doctors’ and nurses’ view of things as well; it’s not only the patients and the families who are having to make tough decisions, but like one guy says, “I want to try everything I can, I want to try anything that will make a difference.” But when they cut to a close-up shot of his dying mother with a large breathing apparatus in her mouth, her hands restrained on a bed to prevent her from ripping it out, it captures the heart of the problem—at what point do you accept there’s nothing more you can do? It may not be easy watching, but you should watch it. Available on Netflix now.
Joe’s Violin (directed by the producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Kahane Cooperman) follows the story of two people almost 80 years apart, who are brought together by a violin. If you’re thinking that sounds cheesy as hell, you’re wrong. 93-year old Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, hears about an instrument drive, so he gets on the bus to donate his beloved violin he barely uses anymore because of his old age. Joe was born in Poland in 1923, where he grew up in a family who loved music. He played the violin until the beginning of the war when he was sent away to a Siberian labour camp at the age of 17, leaving his parents, brother, and violin behind. He would stay in the labour camp for six-and-a-half years, until the end of the war when he and one of his brothers were sent to a displaced persons camp, waiting to be sent to the US. His mother and youngest brother were sent to a concentration camp, and wouldn’t survive.
It’s at the displaced persons camp that Joe found a violin, and traded a packet of cigarettes for it. How much this instrument means to him is clear when his daughter asks him,“There was probably so much you needed, so what drove you to use your cigarettes for a violin?” And he can’t seem to answer. Joe eventually made it to the US, became an architect, had a family and now in his old age is passing his instrument onto Brianna Perez. Brianna goes to an all girls school in one of the poorest congressional districts in the Bronx and has played the violin since kindergarten and is probably the oldest soul I’ve seen in a kid: “Most people find their light, and my light is playing the violin.” The film may not have spectacular cinematography or the confronting footage that the other films nominated have, but it’s an incredible story. It touches on a dark time in history, and the fact that 13-year-old Brianna seems to understand exactly what the violin represents is a massive part of why this film is so touching. When the pair finally meet, and Brianna plays a particular song for Joe from his past that means a lot to him, it’s a damn tearjerker.
Watani: My Homeland
This is the second of two Syrian-based films that made it into the top five this year. Watani: My Homeland took director Marcel Mettelsiefen more than three years and 25 trips to Syria to make, which is incredible in itself. It follows the only family left living in a neighbourhood that has now become the frontline in Aleppo. The father is a man named Abu Ali, who is the Commander of the Free Syrian Army. After he is tragically captured by ISIS, the mother of the faily has to make the decision to flee with her four children, to safety in an unknown land. Mettelsiefen follows the beginnings of their new lives in Germany which isfar away from the shells and mortars, but has its own struggles. The full version isn’t available to watch online just yet, but hopefully soon.