The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts tend to be a little more sobering than the animated and live action shorts. These filmmakers are attempting to show current realities, no matter how difficult or unpleasant they might be. But there is also beauty amid the pain.
There’s the 15-year-old homeless girl who finds comfort in her art, the stoic and hard working canners in New York, the sick but brave Rwandan children treated by another country’s generosity, the Long Island cancer patients who lose all their hair but gain a lot more, and the retirement community residents who find moments of joy in the middle of old age’s toughest moments.
With just over a week left before the Oscars, EW spoke to the directors of all the nominated documentary shorts for this deep dive into the category.
We’ve included trailers for all five nominees, but be sure to check out ShortsHD’s website for the Oscar-nominated shorts for information about where the full films are playing in local theaters and how you can access the films on iTunes and VOD.
Inocente is 15 years old. She is shy and soft spoken. She loves flowers. She’s a talented artist. She paints her face everyday. She’s also homeless.
Documentary filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine knew they wanted to make film about homeslessness before they’d even met Inocente. Andrea explained: “We started looking all over the country – calling shelters, and schools, and policy places – anybody that might have connections to working with this population. It took us months and months and finally we came across this great organization called A Reason To Survive (aka ARTS). The head of the organization said I think I’ve got the girl for you.” Inocente had never told her story before, taking pains to keep the circumstances of her life private. But she opened up to Sean and Andrea.
“Inocente has huge trust issues,” said Sean. “Everyone in her life has let her down, including her mom and her dad. I think the art program that she was going to was the first place that showed trust in her, and was something that she could trust. Andrea and I are very conscious of creating a trust factor, especially with kids, so we showed up without the camera and we hung out and we spent a lot of time with her.”
When they finally picked up the camera, they captured stories about both her paintings and her strained relationship with her mother. “Inocente’s mother had her when she was 16. It was really clear that she was a baby trying to take care of a baby. She was in the country illegally without knowing English and had these kids to care for. She made a lot of mistakes with Inocente, and you can see how she’s grown and matured, caring for the other two kids,” Andrea said. “What Sean and I see are two people who desperately need each other and who are trying to work it out.”
In a life that is full of fraught relationships, and insecurity, one thing Inocente has control over is her art. “Those colors get her through her day, and through her tough times,” said Sean. “The way she paints, it’s unbelievable to watch her. She paints to the point of exhaustion. She throws her soul into it. She doesn’t start her paintings by saying ‘oh I’m going to paint this, and it will mean this.’ She never knows what they’ll be. As the paintings evolve, she’ll start to develop a story around them, and it’s fascinating to ask her once she’s done what the painting means to her and to hear what she had to say about it. “
“I’ve never seen art transform a kid like that,” he added.
NEXT SHORT: Kings PointKings Point
For Sari Gilman the journey toward an Oscar nomination began when she was nine years old. That was when her grandparents moved to Kings Point, a retirement community in Florida that became the subject – and the title – of her documentary short.
Visiting her grandparents as a child, she saw Kings Point as a summer camp for older people. As a college student studying photography, she became more fascinated with the place and found its residents compelling subjects for her photos. Making Kings Point, her directorial debut, was “less a decision than it started happening almost without me knowing it,” Gilman, a veteran documentary editor, told EW. “I think in some ways the story had been in my bones since I was a child.”
The 31-minute short, which is dedicated to Gilman’s late grandmother, Ida, follows five residents of the retirement community as they struggle to foster new deep friendships late in life, wonder whether they could ever fall in love again and tentatively broach the topics of illness and aging.
Gilman found it wasn’t difficult for these residents to open up to someone decades younger.
“They knew me as the granddaughter of someone who lived there. I wasn’t really an outsider,” Gilman said. She also found talking about her own grandmother’s experiences with aging – saying, for example, that she was having a harder time walking up stairs – encouraged her documentary subjects to talk about their own struggles.
Gilman hopes that her film encourages audiences to start conversations with their parents or children about what their plans are after retirement and that it sheds light on the value of inter-dependence.
“What I learned by being there and talking to people so deeply was some people felt a certain kind of shame in their aging process,” Gilman, 43, said. “As Americans we think there’s something wrong with us when we age. I hope that that won’t be true for me. I’m not saying aging will ever be easy… but I do hope that I accept the changes a little bit more without fighting them as much.”
HBO acquired Kings Point and will air the film on March 11.
NEXT SHORT: Mondays at RacineMondays at Racine
When filmmaker Cynthia Wade set out to make a documentary short about cancer, she was determined to make a feel-good film about a traditionally sobering subject.
“I really didn’t want to make the next cancer film where you feel like, ‘Oh my God, not only is it a documentary, but it’s a documentary about cancer. Can I just shoot myself now?’” said Wade, a previous Oscar winner for the short Freeheld.
She set out to make an uplifting film about cancer not just from a medical perspective but also a beauty perspective, with the film’s starting point being cancer patients’ hair loss experience.
Wade traces the idea back to a New York Times article about a nurse’s first time shaving a patient’s head, but she knew she wanted to find a salon that could be the film’s home base. After considering many salons around the U.S., she settled on one that was coincidentally not far from her home in Brooklyn: Racine Salon and Spa. The Long Island salon is run by two sisters, Rachel DeMolfetto and Cynthia Sansone, full of both “toughness and compassion,” Wade said, who lost their own mother to cancer. For about 10 years, Racine has been offering services free-of-charge to cancer patients every third Monday of the month – which is where Wade got the title for her film, Mondays at Racine.
During the short’s two and a half years of production, Wade filmed several women diagnosed with cancer, and eventually chose to focus on two of them in the final cut: Cambria Russell, a 36-year-old recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and Linda Hart, a 58-year-old who had been battling metastatic breast cancer for 17 years. Mondays at Racine follows the two women through their treatment, captures chemotherapy’s impact on their family life – Russell as she makes her way through the legal maze of adopting a child at an uncertain time in her life, and Hart as the disease takes a toll on her marriage – and, of course, chronicles their hair loss and time spent at Racine.
Now Wade is seeing Monday programs sprout up at other salons. The first she learned of was Veda Salon & Spa in Colorado Springs, which announced its launch of a Mondays program when the short screened at a hospital as part of the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival. Wade plans to start a campaign to encourage more hair salons across the country to similarly offer complimentary services to cancer patients and hopes to add a map displaying all those salons to the film’s official website.
NEXT SHORT: Open HeartOpen Heart
Rheumatic heart disease was once a leading cause of death among children in the United States until the mid-20th century. The emergence of penicillin, an antibiotic essential to the disease’s prevention, changed that. But rheumatic heart disease is still a prominent killer among children in developing countries.
In Rwanda, there are only two pediatric cardiologists in the entire country to treat the many children with rheumatic heart disease, which permanently damages the heart valves and often occurs when strep throat goes untreated. The office of one of these two doctors, Emmanuel Rusingiza, is where filmmaker Kief Davidson found the inspiration for his short, Open Heart.
“There were about 60 children in his waiting room, and all of them were suffering from rheumatic heart disease, all in various stages,” Davidson said of his October 2011 visit to Rusingiza’s office while working on another documentary. “The idea for the film started when I asked him what the options were for these children.”
In a country with few doctors and limited medical resources, the options are few. Previously, an Australian cardiac team had traveled to the mid-Africa country once a year to perform a dozen surgeries on children with rheumatic heart disease. But when the group canceled the trip in 2011, the next place to turn to was a far-away, state-of-the-art cardiac facility: the Salam Center in Soba, Sudan, run by non-profit organization Emergency, where patients can receive treatment at no cost aside from their airfare to get there. Davidson documented the journey of eight Rwandan children to the Salam Center, where they received open heart surgery.
Davidson saw the eight children grow close as they became like a family during the nearly two months away from home without their parents (who stayed in Rwanda to keep travel costs down). He also saw a major transformation in them after their surgeries.
“When we were first filming, the kids were very, very sick. We didn’t do any interviews with the children initially. They were just too sick for that,” Davidson said. “We really didn’t see their personalities shine until a few days after the surgery. It was amazing for us to see these very lethargic children all of the sudden turn to very energetic, funny, interesting people.”
The director has continued his efforts to help rheumatic heart disease patients in Rwanda. His production company has teamed up with Boston-based Team Heart to aid Rusingiza’s other patients in need of surgery who were not selected for the trip to Sudan. That collaboration also led to Philips donating one of their echo cardio machines to Rusingiza. In April, he and Team Heart will take the portable machine to a remote Rwandan village to do a pre-screening for early stages of rheumatic heart disease for an expected 1,000-plus people.
“Part of reason for me wanting to make this film initially just came from place of partial anger and sadness at the same time that all these children were suffering from a completely preventable disease, that if they had penicillin, they wouldn’t be in this position to begin with,” Davidson said. “The best thing that could happen with the Academy Award nomination, and hopefully a win, is more and more people know about this, and it’ll be more likely there’s going to be some change.”
“Canning is a full time job,” says a 60-year old Vietnam veteran in the vérité documentary short Redemption. “If you don’t do it full time, you won’t get what you need.” This is the sobering reality of a large, too often forgotten group of people.
Sheila Nevins, the President of HBO Documentary Films, called up veteran documentary filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill one day after spotting a canner in her neighborhood in New York. Alpert said, “you give a documentary filmmaker just a little wink and we’re off. At that point we began going all over New York City, riding our motorcycles, stopping on corners, and talking to all the people who were canning. That’s how Redemption began.”
The themes of work ethic and perseverance run through the film. One of the canners that captivated Alpert and O’Neill was Lily, an elderly Chinese woman (pictured above). O’Neill said one day, after following her around for hours as she searched for cans and pushed her cart, he offered to help. “That cart is so heavy!” O’Neill said. “Lily must be 95 pounds of pure muscle. She’s working 20 hours a day, literally, collecting and sorting and redeeming. She never stops. People talk about people needing jobs, but any boss in America would be thrilled to have a worker like Lily, or any of the characters in the film. These aren’t people asking for a handout. They want jobs. They want to work. They want to contribute to society and they don’t have the opportunity. I think that’s a real crisis in our country. When we have dedicated, hardworking, ambitious people who have to do this to survive, what does that say about America?”
Awareness is another thing. This isn’t just something that’s happening in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. It’s everywhere. “People sort of willfully don’t pay attention,” said O’Neill. “There’s really only one moment in the entire film where a non-canner even makes eye contact with a canner.” Alpert added, “and that’s only to yell at them for being in the bicycle lane!”
“These are our fellow citizens, our fellow New Yorkers, and people in the middle to upper class want to pretend that they don’t exist, and that is really our hope with this film that it brings this marginalized population – the working poor – into focus for audiences so that they realize they’re not that different,” said O’Neill.
For documentary filmmakers, subjects and characters don’t just agree to participate in projects. Alpert and O’Neill had to develop relationships and earn the trust of their subjects before they would let them in. And how did they do it? They showed empathy and put themselves in the place of the canners. Instead of going up and asking how much they make canning, they let them know where Heineken bottles are being accepted for redemption in the city. O’Neill explained: “they would know as we know that it’s rare when redemption places will take Heineken bottles. Why? I have no idea! But for whatever reason, they refuse Heineken bottles. Everyone’s always looking for a spot that’s accepting Heineken.”
Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome