“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” documents the filmmakers 12-year journey to bring his masterpiece to fruition – and reintroduces us to why it is an important, maybe the most important, film on the Holocaust.
Other films in this category also have strong messages:
“A Girl in the River: The Price of Freedom” is the rare story of a young Pakistani woman who survives the brutality of the “honor” killing by her own father.
“Body Team 12,” about the brave people who volunteered to go into the belly of the beast during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, is a different kind of survival story in the face of tragedy.
“Chau: Beyond the Lines” is the most uplifting of the nominees as it follows the title character, a victim of horrendous physical deformity because of the US use of Agent Orange in Vietnam over 40 years ago. The documentary is a “My Left Foot” story in real life as Chau seeks his dream to be an artist.
The saddest of the entries is “Last Day of Freedom,” another film about the tragedy to so many by the US war of destruction – physically and mentally – and focuses on the brother of Bill Babbitt (who narrates the film), Manny, a victim of the Vietnam War, PTSD, crime and finally, Death Row.
The short documentary nominees comprise the strongest lineup overall. Liberia's "Body Team 12" showcases a young mother who is the only female member of a team responsible for removing the bodies of Ebola victims, often against the wishes of family members. This strong woman is a prime example of the many unacknowledged heroes who toil for the better good. Motivated by a strong sense of patriotism and her belief in the female perspective on grief, the woman returns to her young son at the end of eighteen hours to be greeted as "Ebola Hero." B+
"Chau, Beyond the Lines," a U.S./Vietnamese coproduction by Courtney Marsh follows Chau as he fights to become a professional artist while growing up in a camp for those deformed by Agent Orange. What is most shocking is how little media coverage is given to the effects of Agent Orange still being felt today from a forty year-old war. B+
Adam Benzine's "Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah" could have been a DVD special feature for the epic holocaust documentary, but it goes deeper than most, filled with excerpts from the film and never before seen footage. After a few talking heads ranging from filmmakers to critics provide brief comments on Lanzmann's work (Marcel Ophuls being the most amusing, referring to Lanzmann as a meglomaniac), Benzine interviews the octogenarian, getting insights into not only the twelve year process of making the film, but the profound impact it had on its author. A
Pakistan's "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" by Shameen Obaid-Chinoy delves into the case of Saba, a beautiful young woman who survived her attempted murder by her father and uncle for daring to marry the young man her uncle objected to (her father had been arranging the marriage after four years of courtship). Shot in the face and arm, put in a bag and thrown into a river, she managed to crawl out and make her way to a gas station. Police admire the woman's tenacity and are anxious to see the perpetrators jailed, but community elders step in and convince Saba and her in-laws that the best course is forgiveness, which absolves the men under Pakistani law. 1,000 women are killed a year for 'honor,' most never receiving justice. This film address the conflict between legal and community law, presenting the need for cultural change, yet the story seems to end too soon. B+
Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman's "Last Day of Freedom" could have just as easily been nominated in the animation category. Simple, elegant line drawings are animated to tell Bill Babbitt's heartbreaking story of a terrible miscarriage of justice. When he realized his PTSD afflicted brother Manny was responsible for the murder of an old woman, he reports his findings to the police, assured every step of the way that his brother will end up in a hospital. What happens instead is infuriating, Bill and Manny let down at every turn. The work is equally affecting in its visual style and in Bill's emotional narration of a decision that haunts him. It's between this one and "Spectres" overall. A
Live Action Shorts:
Basil Khalil's "Ave Maria" is the only comedy in the bunch. With the hour of the Sabbath approaching, a Jewish couple traveling with the man's mother breaks down in front of a Palestinian convent in the West Bank, crashing into its Madonna statue. Inside, five French speaking nuns tied to vows of silence are barely startled from their meal. The youngest of them goes into a panic as the squabbling family ask for use of their phone, then ask them to dial because of religious restrictions. Eventually, everyone abandons religious concerns in order to solve the problem, a lesson leavened with humor. This one is enjoyable, but also a theme we've seen before. There's even a nun acting as mechanic, a trope that goes back to "The Sound of Music" and "The Flying Nun." B
Kosovo's "Shok" is my pick for the best of the bunch. British director Jamie Donoughue based his film on the true story of his friend (and producer) Eshref Durmishi. A young Albanian boy, Petrit, is making extra money from selling tobacco to Serbian soldiers. His friend Oki has a bicycle, a rarity, but is reluctant to venture into dangerous territory with Petrit to make a deal. Petrit wants to buy a bike too, so Oki goes along even though he tells his friend he shouldn't trust the Serbians. This is the most cinematic of the five live action shorts, packing a lot of story and a devastating climax into a mere 21 minutes. A-
Germany's "Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Fine)" is another strong entry, focusing on eight year-old Lea, who's just been picked up by her dad, Michael. The child of divorce is indulged at a toy shop, where her fretful, anxious father worries over the size of the gifts she's chosen. There is fun in a photo booth and a quick stop to sign some papers before the promised, albeit abbreviated trip to a fair. It takes a while for Lea to realize something's wrong, but by that time her dad is pleading with her to remain quiet and assuring her all will be well. The climax of the film is harrowing, writer/director Patrick Vollrath keeping his camera close on the action. This one shares DNA with France's 2014 entry, "Just before Losing Everything." B+
"Stutterer" from Irish writer/director Benjamin Cleary looks at Greenwood, a young man whose vocal affliction keeps him from participating in life. Living with his elderly father, who encourages the young man, Greenwood works as a typesetter, is learning sign language and has been engaged in a flirtatious online relationship for six months with Ellie. The man who cannot complete a telephone conversation is surrounded by words. But when Ellie messages him that she has made a surprise trip to London and hopes to meet him, Greenwood is paralyzed with fear. Has he blown his only chance at happiness? B
After two combat tours in Afghanistan, writer/director Henry Hughes earned an MFA in Directing at the American Film Institute and made "Day One," based on his own female translator during the war. This tale pits duty against decency, tradition against need, as a young woman on her first day on the job is faced with a pregnant woman in jeopardy whose husband is being arrested by her Lieutenant. Layla Alizada is quite good as Feda, but although her first day on the job is a horror show, the situation itself, birth during crisis, is a cinematic cliche. B
“Ave Maria” is a very funny and sly slap at religion – all religion – when a Jewish family accidentally runs over the statue of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic convent in Palestine.
“Shok,” based on true events, is set during the civil war raging between Serb and Croats and centers on two boys, Oki and Petrit, the best of friends trying to just be kids in a war-torn land.
“Everything Will Be OK,” about a divorced father who plans to have take matters in his own hands over his young daughter.
“Stutterer” is look at a young man with the titular affliction trying to find in a world denied him because of his stutter.
“Day One” is inspired by a true story of a young Afghan-American woman who enlists as an interpreter and is sent to the war in Afghanistan.
“Sanjay’s Super Team” Is Pixar’s entry in the short animation contest and it represents a departure for the company. Sanjay is a daydreamer who envisions himself as the leader of his imaginary super hero team, much to the chagrin of his Hindu father. That is the key word – Hindu. Pixar, for the first time, has a person of color as the lead character in an animation.
“World of Tomorrow” is a simply drawn anime about a little girl, Emily, who is visited, from the future, by her third generation clone. The simple drawing accents the story of the future and time travel through the eyes of a little girl.
“Bear Story” tells the story of a toy-making bear who has lost his beloved wife and son. It is a sad little tale but one with a redemptive finish.
“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is a story of two cosmonauts, the best of the best, as they prepare for the next manned spaceflight. Only one will go, leaving his best friend behind, but it does not end there.
“Prologue” is about a battle that took place between Spartan and Athens 2400 ago. The incredible detailed drawings give the film the look of 3D in 2D.
"Sanjay's Super Team" from Pixar is a loving tale from a filmmaker to his traditional Hindu father. The sentiment is true and strong, but the tale as presented, with the young boy finally equating the gods of his father's worship to his own Super Hero videos feels too visually reminiscent of "The Powerpuff Girls" and offers no surprises in story telling or animation. C
Don Herzfeld's "World of Tomorrow," on the other hand, is a true original. Oddly, its young protagonist, Emily Prime, reminded me of Pixar's Boo, the little girl of "Monster's Inc.," even if she is drawn as a piglet faced stick figure. Little Emily is visited by a fourth generation clone from her future who has nothing but dire news. Walking the uncomprehending toddler from one outlandish science fiction speculation to the next, Emily's serious tones belie the writing's humor. This one should be the winner. A
Gabriel Osorio's "Bear Story" from Chile is a close second. This animation gives the effect of stop motion as a lonely old tin toy bear builds a mechanical diorama that tells his sad story. When he takes to the streets, a young bear proffers a coin to see the show and what unfolds is melancholy and magical, providing a strong message about the treatment of circus animals. What is most extraordinary is the way it unfolds and refolds, our perspective stationary as the mechanical world spins. This one reminds me of Luxembourg's 2014 entry “Mr. Hublot." A-
Who would have thought the Russians could be so whimsical? "We Can't Live Without Cosmos" is a hand drawn look at two best friends since childhood training as cosmonauts. While they are intent on being chosen for a launch, they're not above childish goofing. Konstantin Bronzit's charming comedy becomes something deeper when one man goes, his friend staying behind as a reserve. B+
There always seem to be an arty entry and the UK's "Prologue" fills this year's slot. We see hands placing a pencil drawing of foxgloves on a table where it suddenly springs to life. Richard Williams's butterflies give way to a young girl's witnessing of brutal battle during the Spartan-Athenian wars. This one showcases stunning technique, but is not for young children. B+
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