Documentary shorts are not for the faint of heart. Where feature documentaries have enough space to temper their message with a story, characters, and not infrequently plot twists as well, such palliatives are rare in shorts. But short form isn’t exactly a cute little mini documentary. Its shortness is more analogous to a shiv in the side versus open-heart surgery. Maybe less analytical and precise, but certainly quick, penetrating, and painful.
Among this year's Oscar-nominated shorts, 4.1 Miles is especially exemplary of that fast-and-painful type. It is a story about the island of Lesbos, 4.1 miles from Turkey, where the coast guard find themselves newly charged with saving thousands of refugees pouring in on flimsy rafts. Scenes of confusion proliferate. Towards the beginning, a coast guard member impatiently tells the documentarian to put down their camera and help. There is no plot movement in the clip, but the lack of substantive development seems to be rooted more in the intractability of the situation, rather than a documentarian that couldn’t find their thesis.
Extremis stands out as the one piece that is not global in its subject, exploring instead the Intensive Care Unity of a hospital in California. We are introduced to various patients, but the clip is potent mostly in the plastic, empathetic expressions of Dr. Jessica Zitter. Her grimaces and consoling intonations are all the more impressive when you consider the sheer quantity of cases she has seen. Again, the brevity of the form seems deliberately incommensurate with the subject but also like a concession to the viewer, who probably wouldn’t be able to bear much more.
Joe’s Violin is by far the most narrative and neat of the shorts. Here a Holocaust survivor donates his violin in a general drive to put unused instruments in the hands of public school-goers. The documentarian traces its donation to a talented young Bronx student. It’s a sweet story, but it makes you consider the point of documentary shorts — are documentary shorts really just very short documentaries? This one certainly is, but without more scope and time, it feels very light.
Stretching the limits of “short” form are the last two films. Both are about Syria and clock in over half an hour in screen time. The White Helmets covers a special unit that dig people out from rubble in Aleppo. Unlike 4.1 Miles' look at the refugees, this piece has a lot more hope in it. With the kind of fervor that only emerges in people who have seen the worst of humanity, the White Helmet workers heartbreakingly affirm a value in human life in a world that seems to have dismissed the idea long ago.
The standout is Watani: My Homeland. Also taking up Syria as its subject, it follows a family of four doe-eyed girls, their brother, and their mother. Their father, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, appears at the beginning of the documentary, but he is abruptly taken by ISIS off camera. Hearing the day-to-day experience through the testimonials of the girls is fascinating in itself (not to mention them playing ISIS with plastic submachine guns), but their eventual immigration to Germany makes them an even more instructive example of this ubiquitous yet impossibly distant World Event. As subjects who are neither the most tragic nor without hardship, their story is delicately specific. It does not bear summarization — it must simply be told.
With this last film, the beauty of the documentary short crystallizes. Straining against plot, they focus instead on the particular, the very smallest moments. They affirm the importance of the small and ubiquitous. The statistic, you might say. They don’t add up to a talking point or grand thesis. They must simply be watched.