There's a reason that the Documentary Shorts category at the Academy Awards has a reputation for being a dour affair. Short-form documentaries lend themselves well to investigative pieces that, more often than not, highlight malignant social issues and systemic tragedies through visceral, first-hand footage, and recognition through award nominations sheds light on some rather pointed and intense themes of human suffering. This year is no different, though I was actually somewhat surprised at the amount of hope and optimism amidst the tragedy.
Edith + Eddie (dir. Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright)
Unfortunately, this first entry isn't one of those that encourage optimism. Edith + Eddie chronicles the new marriage of two people in their nineties who want nothing more than to spend their last remaining days together. Alas, one of Edith's daughters has Edith's power of attorney and desperately wants Edith's house for the sale value. Edith and Eddie are threatened to be separated from one another in a harrowing tale of elder abuse, and what ultimately happens to the couple is neither uplifting nor encouraging about the ability of the elderly to protect their legal rights. This is human interest reporting at its finest, as it highlights social issues that need addressing but aren't necessarily at the forefront of people's minds.
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (dir. Frank Stiefel)
The title of this one is a little oblique, but it comes into focus when you understand the subject of Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405. Mindy Alper is a woman in her fifties with a long history of mental health issues and a bevy of treatments that weren't exactly helpful or comforting. The first half of the documentary focuses on the suffering in Alper's life, wherein she suffers from intense social anxiety that limits her ability to interact in overly stimulating situations, but the latter half slowly reveals itself to be a story of hope, as Alper channels her pain into art that eventually lands her a museum exhibition. There are no perfect solutions to Alper's tribulations, but this film shows that there's solace in one's ability to create.
Heroin(e) (dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon)
By all rights, Heroin(e) should be the most depressing entry on this list, as it is a detailed examination of the relationship between opium addicts and the institutional systems they interact with. However, this documentary is primarily focused on three women—a firewoman, a judge, and a missionary—whose efforts in a Virginia county have helped to combat the opioid epidemic. The situations they find themselves in are uniformly bleak, as homelessness, incarceration, and overdoses are facts of their daily work lives, but the strength of these women makes the experience an optimistic one even as the reality is itself crushing.
Knife Skills (dir. Thomas Lennon)
To pull back the curtain a bit, as an attorney with a passion for rehabilitative justice, I was always going to be a sucker for Knife Skills. This is the story of a restaurant educational clinic that takes in newly released convicts to train them in the culinary arts, offering them the skills not only to succeed in working at that particular restaurant, but to be hired elsewhere for reasonable living wages. This is a documentary all about success stories from people society at large has written off as lost causes and recidivists, and while there will always be those who fall off the horse, the dedication of the restaurant's owner—a former convict himself—to the well-being of people he considers his brothers and sisters is breathtaking. This is the feel-good documentary of the bunch, and while I don't think it's the winner, it's still my personal favorite.
Traffic Stop (dir. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner)
This is our likely winner this year, as it covers a very visible and unresolved issue in American life: the treatment of black people at the hands of police officers. A black elementary school teacher in Austin, Texas was one day pulled over for speeding, only to be assaulted and detained by the white police officer who pulled her over, all of which was captured on the officer's dashboard camera. What is perhaps more shocking than the assault itself is the captured flippancy of the police department as they try to sort out the aftermath, revealing a deep racial prejudice and self-preserving ethos that frames this incident as in no way unusual. Framed through the teacher's testimonials of how the incident changed her life for the worse, Traffic Stop is a righteously bitter piece of documentary filmmaking that taps directly into the zeitgeist.
[Traffic Stop is an HBO Documentary Film and will be airing on HBO February 19th, with an early preview on HBO NOW, HBO GO, and HBO On Demand on February 16th.]