And I thought the live-action shorts were harrowing.
Last week I reviewed the Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts now playing at Film Streams. This week the short docs open. If you’re planning on going — and you should — steel yourself.
This year’s docs are the longest and most difficult collection of the three programs, but also easily the best overall. Each film is an exploration of an upsetting subject. Each is as difficult to look away from as it is to look at.
Covered in these five films are the Holocaust, the effects of Agent Orange on children, Liberia’s Ebola outbreak, honor killings and the effect of the death penalty on a convict’s family.
It’s rough stuff, but each title provides an essential glimpse into the harsh realities of a different world. A few of the films are overtly advocacy docs, but that doesn’t make them any less cogent.
The one that had me shaking with rage most of the way through was “A Girl in the River” (Pakistan). Its subject is Saba Qaiser, a young Pakistani woman who, after eloping with her boyfriend against her family’s wishes, was kidnapped by her father and uncle, shot in the head, put in a bag and tossed into the river. Saba managed to survive and walk for help, and her father and uncle were arrested. Then the real horror started.
Pakistan alone has more than 1,000 honor killings a year, and many of the killers go unpunished thanks to a legal system rotten with patriarchy privilege.
Through Saba’s story, we see just one case of an outrageously common practice. Of the dozens of films big and short (and “The Big Short”) nominated for Oscars this year, I can’t think of one more important than “A Girl in the River.”
Elsewhere in the program is the equally urgent “Body Team 12” (Liberia), which follows a body collection crew at the height of the Ebola outbreak in Monrovia, Liberia.
The film takes the perspective of Garmai Sumo, a nurse who continually gears up to extract bodies from impoverished and tightly packed villages to help stanch the spread of the disease. Every case is heartbreaking and dangerous, though some are especially so. Often Sumo and her team are faced with hostile communities that refuse to let them take their loved ones.
There’s a sliver of hope to be found in “Chau, Beyond the Lines” (U.S., Vietnam), which mostly takes place at a Vietnamese care center for children disabled by the effects of Agent Orange. Chau, a sensitive teenager, has dreams of leaving the center behind and becoming a professional artist. Because of his weakened limbs, Chau paints (beautifully) using his mouth.
“Chau, Beyond the Lines,” like its subject, is inspiring but grounded. As Chau tries to overcome the effects of fallout from a conflict generations removed, all he wants is a normal life.
In “Last Day of Freedom” (U.S.), Bill Babbitt’s hope for a normal life is quashed when his brother comes home after serving in the Vietnam War.
Manny returned experiencing severe post-traumatic stress, which left him angry, unbalanced and eventually living on the streets. When Bill learns that Manny might have killed someone, he agonizes over turning him in to the authorities.
Bill’s personal narrative is told years after the fact and accompanied by hand-drawn animation.
Going even farther back in time is my second-favorite film of the bunch, “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which is essentially one long conversation with the titular filmmaker behind the Holocaust documentary “Shoah.”
“Shoah” is unquestionably one of the most important films ever made, so hearing a few of the incredible stories of its origins and making is a thrill, albeit one consumed with melancholy and dread.
Lanzmann reveals that the pain of making and editing “Shoah” was so great, he tried to kill himself.
Telling these stories of atrocity takes a toll on the storyteller. But, Lanzmann says, these stories must be told, and they must be heard.
Oscar-nominated shorts 2016 documentary program
Running time: 2 hour, 50 minutes (with intermission)
Films: “Body Team 12,” “A Girl in the River,” “Last Day of Freedom,” “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”
Theater: Film Streams
More info: The 2016 documentary shorts will play at Film Streams through the month, along with the live-action and animated programs.