Invariably, Oscar-nominated documentary shorts focus on discouraging social problems and injustices. This year is no exception. The nominees examine elder abuse, mental illness, the opioid plague, prison recidivism, and police brutality. These are issues that provoke reflection and discussion, but the individuals and their stories stir up empathy and emotion.
Laura Checkoway’s “Edith+Eddie” at first seems just a warm-hearted story about how an elderly biracial couple — 96-year-old Edith, who is African American, and 95-year-old Eddie, who is white — found each other at a Lotto game, fell in love, and got married. But the situation gets more complicated and tragic when a family dispute about property threatens to separate them. With close-ups and voice-overs of the couple, Checkoway vividly shows the power and depth of their love, which makes the intrusion of forces from outside seem even more heartless.
Frank Stiefe’s “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” begins with 56-year-old artist Mindy Alper explaining why she enjoys being stuck in traffic — it’s the peacefulness and the opportunity to observe the lives of fellow motorists. She speaks haltingly, and, as the film gradually discloses, she suffers psychic damage that began with the abuse she experienced as a young child. But her sculptures and paintings (sometimes animated and reminiscent of Signe Baumane’s “Rocks in My Pockets”) reveal that, with the help of dedicated teachers and therapists, she has been able to transform her pain into nightmarishly beautiful art.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “Heroin(e)” focuses more on the “heroine” than the “heroin” part of the title of her look at opioid-ravaged Huntington, W. Va. Women such as Fire Chief Jan Rader , who races to help yet another OD victim and follows up by helping them seek treatment; Judge Patricia Keller, who is stern but compassionate as she offers addicts the option of rehab instead of jail; and Necia Freeman, who realized that offering addicted prostitutes a brown bag lunch and a copy of the Gospels was not enough, so she made it her mission to help them turn their lives around.
The “Knife Skills” in Thomas Lennon’s short refer to those used in a kitchen, and they are just some of the lessons taught at the training program at Edwins (short for “education wins”) restaurant in Cleveland. The participants are young, newly released felons seeking a second chance and each has a story. Like Brandon’s, the ex-offender who is director of the project; his message to his infant son at the end of the film will likely leave some viewers in tears.
A police officer pulled over Breaion King, a 26-year-old African-American school teacher in Austin, Texas, for speeding. Minutes later, as seen on the patrol car’s dashcam, he was slamming the slightly built woman to the ground and handcuffing her. Kate Davis’s “Traffic Stop” intercuts that incident with King teaching her young students, attending a dance class, talking about her mother’s death when she was 15 — scenes from the life of that fellow human being whom the police officer could not see beyond her black skin.
The films will run as separate-admission programs. Both programs screen every day. Program A: “Traffic Stop,” “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” and “Edith + Edie.” Program B: “Heroin(e)” and “Knife Skills.”
2018 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: DOCUMENTARY
Directed by Laura Checkoway, Frank Stiefe, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Thomas Lennon, and Kate Davis. At the Coolidge Corner. 102 minutes (program A) and 82 minutes (program B). Unrated.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.