With one possible exception, there are no feel-good films among the 2019 Oscar nominees for best documentary shorts, which are screening at the Coolidge Corner.
The subjects include racist violence in Britain, terminal illness in San Francisco, oppressed women in India, drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, and a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. Each film, some more artful than others, offers a taut packet of upsetting emotions: anger, grief, outrage, and horror, with only tentative glimpses of hope.
Why watch them? Because you must not look away.
In 2000, 10-year-old Cornelius Walker and his Nigerian-born immigrant parents leave their multicultural London neighborhood after the murder of a Nigerian boy blocks from where they live. They move to rural Essex, where, unbeknownst to them, the situation is much worse. A bullying, racist gang of youths attacks Cornelius, beating him severely. To survive, he decides to become like them, bleaching his skin, straightening his hair, and wearing blue contact lenses. When it gets to the point where he is imitating their racism and violence, he recognizes that he has become a “monster,” too.
In Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn’s “Black Sheep,” Walker tells his story, which is reenacted in wrenching scenes that dramatize with frightening, infuriating vividness the toll of racism and the measures resorted to by those who must fit in to survive.
In “End Game,” Rob Epstein (who won the best documentary feature Oscar for “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984 ) and Jeffrey Friedman (co-director with Epstein of “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” the best documentary feature winner in 1989) gain intimate access to terminally ill patients and their families as they confront and prepare for the inevitable. A much-compressed variation on Frederick Wiseman’s epic, six-hour “Near Death” (1989), it shares some of that film’s intensity if not its cumulative power. It also shows how the medical profession’s approach to mortality has improved over the past 30 years.
Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser’s “Lifeboat” opens and closes with the same grim images — searchers on a North African beach finding the decomposed bodies of refugees drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Most countries have abandoned these helpless victims of war, famine, torture, rape, imprisonment, and slavery. In their stead, volunteers like Captain Jon Castle of the German nonprofit Sea-Watch have taken upon themselves the task of rescuing as many victims as they can.
With harrowing footage of frail rubber rafts and open boats overflowing with sick and dying people — many of them children — the film presents a snapshot of human suffering and injustice that is overwhelming. But not for Castle, who died in 2018, at 67, and to whom the film is dedicated. In three days he and other teams rescued 3,500 people. But thousands more die every year and those who survive the crossing face an uncertain fate.
Castle rejects the option of just looking away. “We might well confront upsetting things,” he says wearily. “But as long as we rescue some, that’s worth doing.”
Though only seven minutes long and consisting of archival footage that is 80 years old, Marshall Curry’s “A Night at the Garden” might be the most terrifying film among the nominees. At a dais in front of a portrait of George Washington bordered by swastikas a uniformed man with a German accent recites the Pledge of Allegiance. A demonstrator rushes the stage, is beaten by thugs and dragged away, pantless and bloody. The speaker smirks. An audience of 20,000 Americans roars in approval, their hands raised in the Nazi salute.
It is Madison Square Garden, Feb. 20, 1939. The following September Hitler would invade Poland and begin World War II.
One nominee offers a glint of optimism, if from an unlikely source. Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton begin their engaging and sly “Period. End of Sentence” by asking young women and girls in a remote Indian village if they know what a “period” is. Most giggle in embarrassment. Others relate how when they are menstruating they are shunned and feel humiliated because they have only rags to deal with it.
Enter an entrepreneur who has invented a machine that can cheaply mass-produce sanitary pads. He teaches the village women how to use it and they set to work manufacturing and marketing them. Their enterprise struggles, then grows. So does their independence, and the men in the community learn to respect them as they have turned what they have been shamed for into an asset. It’s a small blow against the patriarchy, but it’s a beginning.
The films will run as separate-admission programs. Both programs screen every day. Program A: “Black Sheep” and “End Game.” Program B: “ Lifeboat,” “A Night at the Garden,” and “Period. End of Sentence.”
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS 2016: Documentary
Directed by Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser, Marshall Curry , and Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton. At Coolidge Corner. 67 minutes (program A) ; 73 minutes (program B). Unrated. In English, German, Arabic, French, and Hindi, with subtitles.)
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.