Saturday, March 10, 2018

Politics and diversity among Oscar nominated short subjects

I made an observation and a promise at the end of Diversity, representation, inclusion, and fantasy all winners at the 90th Academy Awards on Monday.  The observation was "Sex, ethnicity, race, gender, and disability -- that's a pretty thorough examination of diversity, representation, and inclusion.  It's also a big improvement from 'Oscars so white' just two years ago," while the promise was to examine "the political themes in some of the Live Action Short Films and Documentary Short nominees."  It's time for me to follow through with the promise by noting that the observation applies just as much to the nominees in both categories as it does to the winners, something that struck me as I watched the nominees being announced Sunday night.

I noted that "The Documentary Short winner, 'Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,' told the story of an female artist who struggled with mental illness" and "'The Silent Child,' the winner of the Live Action Short Film, was about the struggles of a deaf girl."   All the other nominees in both categories had social issue themes as they examined political or diversity issues with some examining the intersection between the two.

Indiewire has a better summary of the nominees for Documentary Short than I could write.
The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts program has always been a chance for the Academy to highlight urgent social issues, and this year is no different. Sticking close to home during a year of political unease, all five of the nominated films hail from the United States, and clearly the country has plenty to examine. Ranging in topic from police brutality to mental illness to the opioid crisis, each nominee uses human stories as an entry point. Clocking in between 30 and 40 minutes, this crop of films offers a deeper dive beneath the headlines — revealing the personal toll a crisis exacts from real people.
The reviewer picked out two films as "standouts," "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" and "Traffic Stop," giving both of them an A-.  Both of them stood out to me, too.

As soon as I saw the clip of "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" when its nomination was being announced, I knew it would win.  That's because it's a film about Hollywood, which is enough to get the Motion Picture Academy members to vote for it if all other factors are equal, an observation I made about "Birdman," "La La Land," and "O.J.: Made in America" last year.  That was before I found out that the film's subject, Mindy Alper, was known to show business people in Los Angeles.  According to Wikipedia, she was a friend of Catherine Coulson, the "Log Lady" on "Twin Peaks," and a consultant on "Benny & Joon" about how to play a mentally ill woman.  Of course the Oscar electorate would vote for a film about her.  Watch Frank Stiefel's Oscar 2018 Acceptance Speech for Documentary Short Subject and notice the shout-out to Mindy, who is in the audience.

Watch Frank Stiefel's Oscar 2018 acceptance speech for Documentary Short Subject for HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405 at the 90th Academy Awards.
Enough people know her that one can hear the applause for her, as much as for Stiefel and his wife.

The other thing that struck me was how violent the clip from "Traffic Stop" appeared and how topical the subject was.  Variety had a concise summary explaining the violence.
“Traffic Stop” is lauded documentarian Kate Davis’ first short. (She previously won a Sundance Documentary Grand Jury prize for “Southern Comfort.”) An Austin, Texas, traffic stop leads to the brutalization of driver Breaion King, an African-American school teacher with no record. The short, which will air on HBO in early spring, tackles questions about racism, law enforcement and gender.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, which I've mentioned on this blog only once before, this is a very important film.  Given an electorate that looked like America and not like Hollywood, it might have won.

Moving down the list from Indiewire, which is arranged by the critic's grade, is "Heroin(e)," a film about the opioid crisis in West Virginia.  The critic at Indiewire found it to be the most imaginatively named of the nominees and appreciated its focus on women who are trying to help the addicts, a judge, a fire chief, and a volunteer at a religious charity.

The film that at first looked least like a social-issues documentary was "Knife Skills," which on the surface is about the restaurant business.  What makes it about social issues is that all of the cooking staff are recently released ex-convicts.  That's an angle that fits in with "The Work," one of the most feature-length documentaries of 2017 that I examined about prison life.

Finally, "Edith+Eddie" examines the life and love of the oldest interracial couple in America.  Despite the billing, it is more the broken elder care system and about how adult children use legal guardianships to control the assests of their elderly parents than about race.  It was also the lowest rated of the nominated short documentaries by the critic at Indiewire.

Follow over the jump for my observations on the live-action short subject nominees.

I've already given "The Silent Child" the attention it required on Monday, including its acceptance speech, so I'll move on to the other nominees in alphabetical order.

"DeKalb Elementary" fits under the political umbrella, as it was inspired by a 911 call about a school shooting in Atlanta, Georgia.  Like 'Icarus' wins Best Documentary, making a political point at Putin's expense, I found this a timely work of art in light of the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida.  As a personal aside, the director is a fellow UCLA alumnus.

"My Nephew Emmett" examines both diversity and politics, as it recreates the events surrounding the death of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was killed after being accused of harassing a White woman.  It focuses on the unsuccessful efforts of Emmet's uncle, a preacher, to protect him.  This event is a tragedy that should not be forgotten and the film keeps the shame of this incident alive.

I found that "The Eleven O'Clock" weakly examines diversity, in the sense that serious mental illness is a disability and disability is covered under diversity.  That's a long way for that syllogism to go on this Australian film, but it still applies.  IFCCenter has the following synopsis: "The delusional patient of a psychiatrist believes he is actually the psychiatrist. As they each attempt to treat each other the session gets out of control."  It's the only comedy among the nominees.

The final nominee in this category, at least alphabetically by title, is "Watu Wote/All of Us."  This film, set in Kenya, is also about the intersection of politics and diversity, as the synopsis from IFCCenter shows: "For almost a decade Kenya has been targeted by terrorist attacks of the Al-Shabaab. An atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust between Muslims and Christians is growing. Until in December 2015, [M]uslim bus passengers showed that solidarity can prevail."  As quoted in Variety, Director Katja Benrath said of her movie “It’s really important to recognize that everybody is a human being and not categories like race or religion.” Those are lessons we in the U.S. can learn, too.

That's it for the Oscars for today.  Stay tuned for a post about Daylight Saving Time followed by an entry comparing my predictions from 'The Shape of Water' and 'Blade Runner 2049' lead speculative fiction nominees at the Oscars and other entries with reality.

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