This year’s Oscar nominees for documentary shorts are available for streaming via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room. They cover much of the world. Two are set in Los Angeles, one in France and Germany, another in Yemen, and the fifth in Hong Kong.
That documentary, “Do Not Split,” consists of handheld video footage of student protests in fall 2019 and through July of last year against the Chinese government’s democracy crackdown. Viewers are put in the middle of the demonstrations. The effect is both overwhelming and gripping. There are also in-the-street interviews with several protesters. Their fearlessness and dedication are inspiring. Anders Hammer directed this Norwegian-American co-production.
“Do Not Split” confronts oppression in the present. “Colette” confronts the aftermath of past oppression. As a teenager, Colette Marin-Catherine was in the French Resistance. “We were playing with fire,” she says. “Or, rather, fire was playing with us.” Her older brother, Jean-Pierre, was also in the Resistance. Arrested by the Nazis, he was taken to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, where he died just three weeks before its liberation.
Now 90, Marin-Catherine visits the camp for the first time, accompanied by the young history student, Lucie Fouble, who persuaded her to make the journey. Anthony Giacchino’s film is intensely moving, both because of Marin-Catherine’s response to seeing where her brother was killed and, in a very different way, from the fellow feeling that grows between her and Fouble.
Latasha Harlins was 15 when a convenience-store owner shot and killed her. That was in 1991. Outrage over her death helped fuel the 1992 Los Angeles riots set off by the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. Harlins was “a young black girl who was worth a dollar and 79 cents,” her cousin Shinese Harlins says in “A Song for Latasha.” That was the price of the bottle of orange juice Harlins was attempting to buy and that the store owner accused her of stealing.
Sophia Nahli Allison’s film draws on the recollections of Shinese and Latasha’s best friend, Tybie O’Bard. It’s no less pointed and politically resonant for being impressionistic and lyrical.
Kris Bowers is a composer: of film and TV scores, jazz, and classical music. Horace Bowers, his grandfather, owns a dry-cleaning business. Kris’s violin concerto, “For a Younger Self,” is his first concert piece. Last year, just before the pandemic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave its world premiere.
Bowers’s and Ben Proudfoot’s “A Concerto Is a Conversation” consists mostly of grandfather and grandson conversing. It is a pleasure to be in the filmic company of Horace Bowers. He’s tough, warm, and loving. It would be even more of a pleasure, if the film didn’t have the maddening stylistic tic of showing their conversation as a series of closeups, with each participant looking into the camera. Not showing them in a two shot — that is, sharing the same screen — isn’t just a violation of film grammar. It’s visually distracting and emotionally distancing. Put in musical terms: A marvelous harmony gets a botched orchestration.
Lasting 40 minutes, “Hunger Ward” is the longest of the shorts. Directed by Skye Fitzgerald, it looks at two clinics in Yemen where starving children are treated. The patients have immense eyes and forearms not much thicker than an adult’s thumb. Which is more miraculous: the emotional strength of the doctors and nurses who treat the children or their ability to find veins to insert IVs?
The other films are affecting, each in its own way. “Hunger Ward” is on another emotional level. It’s heartbreaking. The civil war between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed forces has led to a refugee crisis, and that crisis has bred starvation. “If we don’t lose children to malnutrition,” a nurse laments, “we lose them to bombing.” Information on how to help is available at www.hungerward.org.
In not-so-good company
Is there such a genre as business porn? “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of $47 Billion Unicorn” definitely qualifies. It’s a lip-smackingly detailed account of business stupidity and cupidity. The Hulu documentary starts streaming April 2. It’s a bit overproduced and slick, but that might be part of the reason it’s so entertaining. That, and the preposterousness of the story it has to tell.
You may recall news stories from fall 2019 about WeWork, the real estate company focused on leasing shared work spaces to startups. It went in six weeks from a market valuation of $47 billion to battling bankruptcy. We hear co-founder Adam Neumann describe the company in a promotional video as “the world’s first physical social network.” With a concept like that, why bother with profits? Before too long, the company was burning through $100 million a week.
Neumann, 41, is the star of the show — “show” meaning WeWork the company as well as “WeWork” the documentary. Relentless and charismatic, he looks like David Byrne’s barber-averse kid brother. This is a man with truly great hair. Watching him do his tech-visionary thing is a reminder that the line between entrepreneur and promoter is thin, and the one between between promoter and huckster is even thinner. “It was ‘we’ for everybody except for Adam,” a former WeWork lawyer say. Forced out as CEO, Neumann took home a severance package of $1.7 billion. One man’s WeWork is another’s iProfit.
Go to www.hulu.com.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.