No Academy Awards ballot is complete without tackling one of its most provocative categories: the documentary short films, where viewers can find works on less-mainstream and more personal topics. This year's program is two-and-a-half-hours long, and I'd be remiss not to warn you that the slate is a heavy one.
There are two video-diary-type films from Poland. In "Joanna" (40 min.), Aneta Kopacz documents the everyday moments of a woman diagnosed with cancer, and particularly her interactions with her young son. The effect is both lyrical and intimate, and the mundane scenes are never less than heartbreaking. "At least I saw him learn to ride a bike," she says, as her boy pedals away from her.
The second Polish film, "Our Curse" (27 min.), finds director Tomasz Śliwiński chronicling the confusing and fraught days following the birth of his son, who suffers from a rare disease which requires him to sleep on a ventilator. Śliwiński and his wife openly question the emotional difficulties of embracing a child whose existence is on a knife edge between thriving and dying.
It's tens of thousands of deaths that both haunt and sustain Efarin, whose job it is to kill cows in a Mexican slaughterhouse. Gabriel Serra Arguello's "The Reaper" (29 min.) combines artful black-and-white photography of the workplace with Efrain's thoughts about life and death, and the duality they pose for him: In order that his family lives, he takes lives.
When we think of the children of migrant workers, we might not conjure them in the oil and gas fields of North Dakota. But the energy boom has brought families to small towns like the titular "White Earth" (USA, 20 min.). Filmmaker J. Christian Jensen catches up with some of these kids, who struggle to process big themes such economic stability and home, while subject to the vagaries of their parents' employment.
With veterans' post-war experiences back in the news, Ellen Goosenberg Kent's "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" (USA, 40 min.) is timely. Her cameras, set up at a national crisis hotline in New York state, capture counselors patiently talking callers through suicidal thoughts, while simultaneously coordinating with emergency personnel to respond in person. Despite the positive outcomes seen here, the film is a potent reminder of how widespread and destructive PTSD can be, and how thinly stretched the front-line defenses for treating it are.
For lighter fare and for completists, there's still time to catch all the short films nominated for the Academy Awards this year, before the Feb. 22 ceremony. The Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts continue at the Regent Square through Thu., Feb. 12, and then at the Harris from Feb. 13 through Feb. 19.