2023 Oscar Nominated Shorts – Documentary
The 2023 nominees for documentary short subject cover a wide range, from the Muslim immigrants who change the heart and mind of an Afghan war vet to a dad who asks his daughter the same set of questions from her second birthday through her eighteenth to the woman Nixon’s men tried to silence. They are a diverse lot, even the two centered on animals coming from very different places and perspectives.
Laura's Review: B+
The most artful nominee, from sister and brother filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, is my hands down favorite in this category, a stunningly shot document of a mysterious and marvelous natural phenomenon now showing alarming evidence of the disastrous effects of climate change. In the unfathomably remote Chukotka in the Siberian Antarctic we see a man out on the end of a rock jetty reporting weather conditions over a walkie talkie. In a brutal landscape of whipping winds reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” Maxim lives in an old wooden structure where he boils water in an old kettle, eats canned goods and rolls cigarettes. Then one day he opens his door to the sight of thousands of walruses, an unexpected, jaw-dropping scene. For several days the walruses, which he estimates at 95K, jostle outside his window, a young one even gaining entry. Moody cinematography in bleak grays and browns finds Maxim’s shack glowing in the dusk surrounded by the animals. Maxim is a marine biologist who’s been studying this movement for 10 years and once the enormous creatures move out (the ‘haulout’ of the title), he will find 600 dead walking the beach, the animals having been exhausted with no ice to rest upon. A young calf, its mother dead, makes its way into the water and we fear for its survival in this harsh reality. A
How Do You Measure a Year?
When his daughter Ella turned two, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt decided to ask her a series of questions every year on her birthday. As one year slips into the next, we witness the development of a young woman, from her ‘kids say the darnedest things’ phase through social anxiety, practicing her feminine wiles, an angsty Emo phase at fourteen completely upended by fifteen, her relationship to her dad embraced, never quite rebuffed, then honored on her eighteenth birthday. The three year-old who, when asked what she wants to do responds ‘wear make-up,’ does just that ten years later. The aspiring singer’s voice grows in confidence, ‘Seasons to Love’ from ‘Rent,’ one of the sampled songs providing the short’s title (Ella also preciously tries on seductiveness as part of her act, at once queasy-making and relatable). The thirteen year-old who asks her twenty-five year-old self why she’d ever want to watch this fulfills her older self’s desire to be on television. “How Do You Measure a Year?” is funny, personal and provocative. B
Stranger at the Gate
Director Joshua Seftel (“War, Inc.”) begins his film on an ominous note, teenaged Emily telling us she cannot fathom a mass murderer living in her own home. We then learn her mom thought her stepdad was a real jarhead when she met him and the man himself, Mac, tells us that when he asked an officer about how to cope in 1980’s Afghanistan he was advised to not consider his targets as human. When Emily asks why a classmate’s mom wore something that covered everything but her eyes, Mac declares them both terrorists, but when Emily questions the ferocity of his reply, he decides to visit the Muncie, Indiana mosque he now plans to bomb to get ‘proof’ for his daughter that they’re killers. Thankfully, nothing goes according to Mac’s plan. Using current day interviews, family stills, location diagrams and drone shots, Seftel’s film soars in its message of forgiveness, exemplified by ‘the Mother Teresa of the Muslim community,’ Mrs. Bahrami. A-
The Elephant Whisperer
This Netflix entry is a tonic to “Haulout’s” bleak tale. In Tamil Nadu, India Bomman, like his father and grandfather before him, is paid to care for rescued elephants and has formed a bond with an orphaned baby named Raghu, who sleeps in a shed attached to Bomman’s living quarters. An indigenous widowed forest woman, Bellie, is sent to work with him and their shared love of the animal turns into autumnal romance. Kartiki Gonsalves follows these two as they walk, feed and bath Raghu, and then Ammu, another orphaned 5 month old entrusted to their care. One falls in love with these affectionate, intelligent creatures right along with their caretakers, the first couple to successfully raise two orphaned elephants, but is frustrated when Raghu is taken from their care with no explanation. B
The Martha Mitchell Effect
For those who watched the Julia Roberts limited series ‘Gaslit,’ this is like a recap. In a scant 39 minutes, Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy distill a fairly detailed account of how the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general and 1972 campaign manager, beloved for her hilarious outspokenness when towing the party line, became such a thorn in their side Nixon credited her with breaking open the Watergate scandal. Featuring copious interview footage from her many appearances on talk shows (and even ‘Laugh-In!’) and in front of the news reporters who awaited her comings and goings from her Watergate apartment, “The Martha Mitchell Effect” charts how an outspoken woman regarded as something of a joke, especially after her kidnapping claims, became revered for the brave whistleblower she actually was, telling truths that cost her what appeared to have once been a rock solid marriage. The title refers to what is now defined as a person professionally labeled as delusional who is actually telling the truth. B+
Robin's Review: B
A man sits in a remote cabin on the desolate Russian Arctic tundra by the coast. He makes notes and hunkers down…for what? In the morning, he opens his door and there are tens of thousands of walrus right outside. The gathering seems the miracle the man was waiting for. But, it turns out to be the opposite of wonderful when you find out the real reason he and they are there in “Haulout.”
This near-silent 25-minute documentary packs a powerful environmental punch as the wonder of the gathering, or haulout, is soon replace with horror. In a brief amount of time, directors/writers Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva, show us what man has done to this world, leaving a feeling of hopelessness that we are destroying the environment and just do not care. It is an intensely thought-provoking tale of peril. B+
How Do You Measure a Year
A father, on his daughter’s second birthday, begins an annual video project that will continue to her 18th birthday. On that important day he will ask her questions as we watch her grow, like “what is power?” and “what do you dream about?” The answers will both surprise and amuse as we watch Ella grow from toddler to young woman in “How Do You Measure a Year.” B-
Stranger at the Gate
In a world where hate seems to be the dominant emotion for far too many, it is nice to see a real story of how that hate can be turned into love and respect just by the acts of kindness and understanding for the “Stranger at the Gate.“
Richard McKay, a former marine who spent too many tours in Afghanistan, suffers from PTSD and an unrelenting hate for Muslims. He plans to bomb a mosque in his home town but, when he meets the congregants of that mosque, they treat him with kindness and understanding. We watch “Mac” as he transforms from a hater of Islam to one who embraces his new faith and new family. Mac’s metamorphosis is amazing and truly hopeful. B
The Elephant Whisperers
It is nice to see a story of a couple in southern India who devote themselves to caring for and raising an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu as “The Elephant Whisperers.”
This thoughtful true story of two partners who take on the task of feeding and raising baby Raghu is more of a feel good document than insightful study of pachyderms. This makes for a charming story about a couple’s rescue animal – actually, two. They adopt another orphan later in the story and treat it with equal love. B-
The Martha Mitchell Affect
If you want to get an in-depth look at Martha Mitchell, husband John, Richard Nixon and Watergate, then check out the TV miniseries from 2020, “Gaslit.” That show got into the gritty nuts and bolts of Martha’s outspoken nature and the plight of censure, social snubs and, even, being kidnapped on the orders of her loving husband John.
But, if you want to get the real words of all the players at the time of the Watergate break-in and scandal that ensued, then this 40-minute documentary, “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” will fill that bill. Directors Anna Alvergue and Debra McClutchy compile archival footage of Martha and the rest of the players in the scandal – John Dean, Dwight Chapin, Jeb Magruder and H.R. Halderman, among others. There is also commentary and analysis by the news talent of the day – Walter Cronkite, Connie Chung, Bob Woodward. Sally Quinn, John Chancellor and more.
Actually a companion watching of “Gaslit” and “The Martha Mitchell Effect” may be an interesting binge. B
Shorts.tv releases the 2023 Oscar Nominated Shorts - Documentary in theaters on 2/17/23.