Coming to the end of my journey across all three short categories at this year’s Oscars, the documentary section closes things off with a big, long sigh. While live action and animation had at least one highlight in their respective categories, nothing in particular stands out from the nonfiction nominees. On the other hand, even the weakest documentary nominee doesn’t come close to matching the lowest lows of Dear Basketball or My Nephew Emmett; it’s a collection of filmmaking that feels too familiar in its presentation, content to rest on convention rather than explore the possibilities of documentary.
One title that comes close to trying something interesting is Traffic Stop, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s look at Breaion King, who was arrested after a cop stopped her for speeding. King, an African-American woman and school teacher from Texas, was assaulted by the officer for no reason, and Davis and Heilbroner crosscut between the police car’s dash cam footage of the arrest and King herself, who talks about her personal life. The footage of King’s arrest is disturbing, but it’s made even more chilling by how the footage gets edited in a cinematic manner. When backup arrives and King gets moved to the back of a different cop car, Davis and Heilbroner cut between security footage of King crying in the back of the car and the other car’s dash cam, which catches the arresting officer lying in his recounting of what happened. It’s a feat of editing that calls awareness to its own filmic qualities and confronts the detached, voyeuristic emotions that come with watching a very real, very traumatic situation presented in a form associated with escapism.
It’s too bad that Traffic Stop’s other half falls into a trap that usually happens when profiling a victim. Each time Davis and Heilbroner cut to King, a new piece of information about her life gets revealed, whether it’s her educational background, her work as a teacher, her passion for dance, or her hard upbringing. These are meant to evoke surprise given what she went through, as she’s clearly an upstanding citizen. But this approach comes with a problematic implication that, if King was not an upstanding citizen, her assault might have had some cause or justification. The footage shows that King was beaten up for being stressed out, scared, and not blindly following the orders of a power tripping cop. Her occupation and background are irrelevant in this context, and Davis and Heilbroner’s unnecessary attempt to justify King’s status as a victim hurts the film’s power in telling the story of a hate crime.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e) represents Netflix’s continuing attempt to go after its rival HBO, who tend to dominate this category every year, so it’s no surprise that Sheldon’s film feels like Sheila Nevins could have produced it. It takes place in Huntington, West Virginia, a small town overrun by the opioid epidemic that’s been ravaging America for years. Sheldon’s smart approach to the subject matter focuses on three women dealing with the epidemic in different ways: a Fire Chief trying to save people who’ve overdosed, a judge in drug court helping addicts on the path to recovery, and a Good Samaritan providing meals to sex workers. The opioid epidemic could easily be expanded out to a feature-length documentary, but Sheldon’s humanistic lens works well enough in the short format. Rather than ask how we got to this situation or turn to the institutions whose failures have created this mess, Sheldon looks at the people on the frontlines who have no other choice but to work with the hand that’s been dealt to them.
The other three nominees are more lacking in their impact, part of which might be due to the fact that they’re more specific stories that aren’t tied to more politically relevant issues. It could also be due to these films not really being too interesting themselves, save for Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie, although what’s interesting about it is how the director’s original vision gets away from her. After learning about an interracial, nonagenarian newlywed couple (yes, you read that correctly), Checkoway took a trip to film them in the hopes of profiling a sweet love story. Instead, she stumbles into a legal feud between Edith’s daughters, with one of them wanting to sell off Edith’s assets and put her in a retirement home. The short culminates with an incident of elder abuse, where Edith gets forcefully separated from Eddie by her court-appointed guardian. The material outshines Checkoway though, whose sentimental direction undercuts the impact of what happens.
Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills profiles a new restaurant in Cleveland that gives itself a series of arbitrary obstacles to overcome. Owner Brandon Chrostowski only hires workers who have gotten out of prison (some of whom have no experience working in a kitchen) and puts them in a rigorous training program less than two months before opening day. Lennon’s documentary reeks of back patting and self-satisfaction at Chrostowski and his business, which doesn’t sound very appealing anyway. At one point Chrostowski talks about how it’s better to hire someone who got out of prison because they have something to prove and will therefore work harder, a message intended to be positive that really comes across as a gross, business-minded perspective. These restaurant workers represent people who have fallen through the cracks of the system, succumbing to drugs and crime as a result. Lennon and Chrostowski see an opportunity for these people to conform and be thrown back into the same system, while gaining something for themselves in the process, and the congratulatory tone of it all doesn’t sit right.
Lastly, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 tells the life story of Mindy Alper, an artist who’s battled with abuse and mental illness throughout her life. Director Frank Stiefel keeps things straightforward in his direction, letting Alper discuss her tumultuous history with some input from her friends, colleagues, and family. There isn’t much to say here, as the short operates as a mildly interesting human interest story, although Stiefel makes some strange choices (like a cheesy attempt to portray Alper’s anxiety which requires her to “act”). Alper’s story is inspiring, but Stiefel’s handling of it lacks much inspiration, and like the majority of these nominees winds up making a film that kind of just exists as a fine effort.