2021 Best Short Documentaries (According to Oscar)
Director: Anthony Giacchino, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, Anders Hammer, Skye Fitzgerald, Sophia Nahli Allison
Short documentaries, even the best of them, are often overlooked. During The Oscars’ glittering gala April 25, no other category of nominees is as likely to draw a collective “huh?” from viewers as those in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category.
That’s too bad. Because the following nominated docs, in less than an hour, pack a wallop.
Documentaries are designed to take important issues and make them human—to put flesh and bones on what we read in headlines and history books, to take us into an unfamiliar world and make us care and act. To be able to humanize an issue and galvanize an audience in a relatively short time frame is even more remarkable. This year’s class of nominated short docs tackle a variety of issues. But if there’s one broad theme that unites this particular class of Oscar nominees together: youth. Youth’s promise, its power and the pain that comes when a young life is cut short way too soon.
You can find these documentaries in a handful of theaters now, playing together, or through some virtual theater experiences, too. Or you can follow the links we include below to find each of them in turn.
Director: Anthony Giacchino
In 1945, Jean Pierre Catherine died In the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp near Nordhausen, Germany. His younger sister, Colette—now 90 years old and a former French Resistance fighter herself—has never visited the site before. But now, accompanied by historian and researcher Lucie Fouble, she decides to make the trip. “Once I cross into Germany,” she says, “I won’t ever be the same.”
Colette anchors this 24-minute film with her strength, grace, humor and, at times, temper. She admits that she wasn’t that close to her brother: “He was three years older than me and a genius,” she says. “And I was a bit of an idiot.” And the trip itself, for both she and Lucie, is filled with the war’s remembered horror and long-held tears. But we find moments of beauty, as well. “Do you hear that?” Collete asks Lucie as they wipe their faces dry. “The birds singing. Who knows if birds are not a collection of all our sorrows?”
Directors: Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers
Kris Bowers, a young, Black composer, sits down with his grandfather, Horace, to glean both some history and some wisdom from the older man before he passes from cancer. We learn about the challenges Horace faced as he hitchhiked from the deep South all the way to Los Angeles in the 1940s—to escape one form of racism only to encounter another. With just $28 to his name, Horace eventually became a prosperous L.A. businessman and landowner—building his empire via the mail, because he wouldn’t receive loans if bankers saw the color of his skin.
The story’s beautiful intimacy is emphasized by its camera work—with both Kris and Howard looking directly into the camera as if they’re talking to each other, face to face. We see that Howard’s drive paved the way for Kris’s own successes—home movies documenting Kris as a child, playing piano while his grandfather gleefully looks on. And while the movie hones in on the racism that Howard faced, Concerto is really about family, and about the power and joy one generation can bequeath to the next.
Director: Anders Hammer
The documentary sweeps us into the streets of Hong Kong circa 2019, as the principality teeters at a perilous crossroads. Great Britain turned the colony over to China in 1997, provided Hong Kong would remain a largely independent region. But when China enacted a law that allowed extradition of suspected criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China, the city exploded. Do Not Split chronicles the conflict from the front lines, as protestors—mostly college students and youth—battle China’s police and bureaucracy, often violently, as they watch the city’s traditional freedoms slip away.
One young protestor chronicles the sacrifices she’s made by being so active in the resistance: Her career as a teacher is gone, her future in business greatly curtailed. But she feels her current activism is worth the sacrifices. “If we are losing the fight and we could no longer safeguard the future of the city,” she says, “It is meaningless to think about our own future.” The documentary, which follows the mask-wearing activists as they clash with police armed with tear gas and water cannons, paints a harrowing picture of what that future of Hong Kong might hold.
Director: Skye Fitzgerald
Since 2016, the country of Yemen has been embroiled in civil war, with neighboring Saudi Arabia and a coalition of other countries taking an active part in the conflict. The result: The most horrific humanitarian crisis on the planet. Hunger Ward zeroes in on the country’s most vulnerable: the children, millions of whom are suffering from staggering malnutrition. And we meet a pair of women who help these children, day after painful day.
This might be the most difficult-to-watch short documentary nominated for an Oscar this year. The suffering the camera takes in—babies suffering terrible burns, girls whose arms are almost as skinny as the needled syringes stuck into them—brings the crisis right into our laps. One doctor tells us that while every case is different, they all share two things: Malnutrition and heartbreak. But as difficult as the film can be, in its 40-minute runtime it just might motivate viewers to action. And that, of course, is the point.
A Love Song for Latasha (Netflix)
Director: Sophia Nahli Allison
In 1992, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head in a Los Angeles convenience store after the owner thought she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. In her hand, Latasha held the two dollars she’d planned to use to pay for that juice. Her death, many believe, helped feed the rage that fueled the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
The film spends some time unpacking that fatal day, of course, but the doc is more about Latasha’s life than death—recounted by her cousin, Shinese, and best friend Tybie. Rather than leaning on historical footage and pictures, Director Sophia Nahli Allison instead sweeps viewers into the sun-dappled present, using several girls as narrative fill-ins for Latasha and her friends, as if saying Latasha could’ve been her. Or her. Or her. The life and vibrancy we see on screen makes Latasha’s death feel all the more tragic.