2022 Oscars – Documentary Shorts

by Ronan Moore and Brandon Yunker

Audible:

I remember high school football games as explosive, cacophonous events. Being in the marching band, there was rarely a second where I wasn’t surrounded by noise. That said, even though I’ve slightly damaged my hearing (wear proper ear protection, folks), I could never imagine living in a world where the only way you are capable of interfacing with sound is by feeling it. When you see these kids living in that every day, it is bound to make you think about a few things.

Audible follows the football team at Maryland School For The Deaf, and I want to say that it’s not around until the 10-minute mark until we hear a word spoken, and even longer until there’s genuine narration like one is usually expecting from a documentary. Because of that, the time we get in the interviews with the teammates feels much more intimate, especially when it comes to creative sound design that does a lot to simulate what a deaf football player’s experience might be like on the field.

We closely follow Amaree for the majority of the runtime, getting to know his history and his struggles, as well as his strengths. Through sign language, he speaks intelligently and thoughtfully about the people in his life, much more so than a lot of people I’ve met over the course of my life. Whether he’s talking about the relationship he’s slowly building back up with his once-absent father, or reflecting on his late friend Teddy, Amaree’s perspective on things is, in all honesty, one I wish to adopt.

I’ll admit, I never really went to football games willingly – I was required to as part of my school’s marching band. I was invested in the game maybe once or twice a season. Now, I’m here wishing I’d gotten to know people better. The skill and determination that this Maryland team exudes is one every viewer can learn from. Though Audible doesn’t shy away from saddening and difficult material, it proposes an inspiring spitfire attitude towards life. No matter what adversity you face in life, if you have the courage to keep going forward, you can accomplish incredible things.

When We Were Bullies:

Jay Rosenblatt has been in the filmmaking game for a while. He has experience with crafting an interesting presentation around a story. I’ll give him credit for the unique aesthetic he manages to accomplish over the course of this film’s runtime. But as you get further and further into this film, you start to realize something about Rosenblatt himself: he’s a jerk.

 When We Were Bullies tells the story of a bullying incident where an entire fifth grade class ganged up on a kid named Richard (referred to as Dick throughout the documentary) and savagely beat him for something that wasn’t his fault. Rosenblatt actually interviews another man named Richard, who was the person that was actually responsible for what Dick had allegedly done. As Rosenblatt reaches out to more of his classmates, they all express some regret for the events that had occurred.

Rosenblatt even interviews the teacher of his class, who remarks that this film could end up being ‘tedious’. I have to say, she wasn’t wrong. Rosenblatt’s aesthetic was not intriguing enough that I wasn’t wishing I wasn’t doing something else with my time. That is, until the closing minutes roll around. Because of Dick’s declining of an interview about the event that was more than likely quite traumatic for him, Rosenblatt takes the opportunity to make the film about himself and his classmates. He expresses a strange pride in pointing out that we’ll never get to hear from Dick, and despite filling his last minutes with sympathy pleas for the people who bullied Dick, he ends it with an apology that couldn’t feel more hollow.

We all love when a film shocks us with something we didn’t expect to witness, but I have to make an exception to that rule. I was unexpectedly disappointed by the lack of growth displayed in Rosenblatt’s conclusion about the events that transpired. Every second he spent pontificating on how the sympathy should be directed toward the bullies, the more I balked at my screen at the blatant ignorance of someone else’s feelings. If I can urge you to do anything with this article, it’s to have some sympathy for your fellow human beings. You may not be perfect, but I can promise you this, readers: you’ll be a better person than Jay Rosenblatt.

The Queen of Basketball

Good documentaries allow us to meet people from all walks of life and to explore as much of their lives as they are willing to share. The Queen of Basketball allows us the privilege of getting to know one of the greatest basketball players ever in Lusia Harris. Harris was a pioneer in women’s athletics, winning three national championships, an Olympic silver medal and the only woman to ever be drafted by an NBA team. 

The documentary follows Lusia’s life as the daughter of sharecroppers to legendary athlete to coach and mother. Her story is told through her own words, allowing us to be charmed by her personality and her spirit. The film is well edited, flowing between archival materials and interviews with Lusia. The film touches upon several aspects of who she was, and what a remarkable person she was. The film explores how she connects race, gender, and even mental illness as she describes her struggles with her post-basketball life. 

Timing is a tragic element to Lusia’s story. Part of legacy is that she was the “first” for so many things that were not that long ago. She was the only black athlete on the women’s team, she scored the first points in women’s Olympic basketball, and she was the first female inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But unfortunately for Lusia, the NCAA didn’t it acknowledge women’s basketball until after she graduated. And upon graduating there was no genuine women’s professional basketball league in the United States as the WNBA did not arrive until 1996. Ultimately, the fact that film has been nominated is poignant as its nomination comes after Lusia’s death in January. 

The Queen of Basketball manages to pack in all these issues into twenty-three minutes of conversation with Lusia Harris. And while the film is distressing in exploring how society couldn’t keep up with Harris, in listening to Lusia, one can’t help but feel that she doesn’t let the inequalities that she faced define her spirit and attitude. Despite pondering what might have been, she stands on her own two as a legend for so many people, and as the title states, the true queen of basketball.

Three Cheers for Benazir

Three Cheers for Benazir introduces us to a young and displaced Afghan refugee named Shaista who is at a crossroads. He has just married his sweetheart Benazir and is starting a family with her while he is contemplating joining the Afghan army to bring honor and a stable paycheck to his family as well as pursue an education and the opportunities it provides. 

The film is beautifully shot and plays like a narrative film. In fact, the way that the events unfold as we watch Shaista struggle with the decision almost feels like a narrative. We follow him as he meets with his family and various friends as he begins the process of applying for the military only to face opposition from everyone he knows. By the end of the film, we find out his decision amidst tragic circumstances as his family attempts to keep afloat amidst the turmoil that has engulfed their home for decades.

Three Cheers for Benazir is a film about decisions and their consequences. It is hard to ignore that while Shaista is struggling to decide his future, something not so different from what any young person faces, he must consider the decisions made by all the parties involved in the War in Afghanistan. Like The Queen of Basketball, it is a timely film as it was originally released only months before the fall of Kabul by the Taliban in 2021. The beauty of the cinematography and the intimacy with which we follow Shaista and his family only underscores the sobering account of how a person is to navigate tough decisions with no discernible clear path ahead.

Lead Me Home

It is estimated that there are half a million people who are homeless in the United States on any given night. It affects people from all walks of life, of different backgrounds, of different generations. And you may very likely know someone who has been homeless for a period of their life, whether it was for a substantial amount of time or a brief period. 

Lead Me Home captures the depths of what homelessness looks and sounds like. It features interviews with a diverse collection of individuals who describe some of what they’ve experienced and what they feel they need. The film intercuts between these interviews and cinema verité’ sequences with some of the interviewed subjects as well as volunteers attempting to assist the homeless as well as government officials trying to get a grasp of how to address homelessness. The film takes place in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle over a four-year period and these locations are just as much a subject as the people who are interviewed. The always moving and always breathing cities don’t offer any type of refuge for the subjects as we observe them trying to make tough decision about their day-to-day life. It is sobering to hear their stories and watch them, knowing that there are so many more people like them in a city near you. And while the film clearly tries to bring awareness to this issue, it does so in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed and gives us a more nuanced representation of this issue and causing us to think about it in a different way.  

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Licorice Pizza

by Brandon Yunker

“Just say yes. Even if you don’t know how to do something, just say yes.” The lesson for working as an actor in Hollywood comes around the middle of Paul Thomas Anderson’ s LICORICE PIZZA. There is something so simple and yet so powerful about this affirmation. It’s freeing. It’s optimistic. And it’s infectious, just like the film itself.

The ninth film by Paul Thomas Anderson follows the budding relationship between the adrift 25-year-old Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim) and the 15-year-old go-getter Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman) as they seek to find success, and their sense of purpose in the early 1970’s San Fernando Valley. The return to the Valley, is a bit of homecoming for Anderson. A native of Los Angeles, several of his films have used it as a backdrop, including Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But what’s different this time is that Licorice Pizza is a light-hearted romp into the wonderfully awkward years of young adulthood. Sure, there are stakes, but for the most part they aren’t particularly high. The film captures the golden years of self-discovery through its charming and dynamic characters of Alana and Gary. 

The film revolves around the couple that is clearly interested in taking their relationship to a serious level, but neither one of them is sure about the other’s commitment. Alana is facing pressure as the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family who seems be the only one without any sort of real plan for the future. Gary is an ambitious but aging child actor who is transitioning to the next phase of his life and seeks to become a successful entrepreneur. It is a fascinating dynamic to follow that is played well by the lead performers in their film debut. 

This contrast in characters is what brings a spark to their relationship and what grabs our attention. The pacing of the film is laid back. It’s the early 70’s after all! But there is this electric synergy on screen when we watch Alana and Gary struggle to find their place in the world and with each other. The setting itself provides a rich tapestry of historical events such as the 1973 oil crisis and, as one could imagine, an eccentric variety of entertainment figures ranging from directors and talent agents to producers and politicians. And on top of the pie is the soundtrack featuring music from the era. It’s an effective time capsule, aided by naturalistic lighting.

But what might be most endearing about Licorice Pizza is that it’s funny. Much of the development of plot and characters comes through subtle dialogue and actions that are catchy. I was surprised by how many tidbits of dialogue and phrases in jest were swirling around my head hours and even days after watching the film. The interactions between Alana and Gary are almost never completely honest; they speak around each other and tease one another throughout the film and its cute and refreshing to see them get under each other’s skin. 

Licorice Pizza is its own kind of romantic coming-of-age story. It doesn’t attempt to tell a classic story of romance and young love in a way that most films do. It follows the beat of its own drum which is rooted in faith and persistent optimism that things will work out in the end and that your partner will ultimately have your back. And for the two main characters, that commitment means everything. 

A Look at the Live-Action Oscar Shorts

by Brandon Yunker

Ala Kachuu – Take and Run

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ALA KACHUU (TAKE AND RUN) (Maria Brendle, 2020) is a film designed to bring awareness to an issue, in this case, the concept of bride kidnapping. For this very reason alone, the film succeeds. I certainly wasn’t aware of the practice that, despite still its illegality, is still occurring in Kyrgyzstan. But beyond simply bringing attention to this issue, the short is well-crafted, following the journey of a young woman named Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova), who seeks to live her own life in the face of cultural customs and the frightening practice of ala kachuu. 

The film opens with Sezim setting her sights on studying in the big city, only to find herself at odds with her traditionalist mother. She leaves home and enters the world on her own, which ultimately leads to her being kidnapped and forced into marriage. She wants to leave the confines of her marriage but struggles with the decision as it will bring her shame within her community as it would be seen as violating custom. The juxtaposition of this decision is an effective plot device, and soberingly, a realistic one. 

Realism is the draw to the film. There aren’t any exuberant swells of score or filmmaking tricks. The camera is close and intimate and the performances authentic, especially Alina Turdumamatova. It is an emotionally draining and visceral film as we watch the dark and violent aspects of human nature play out in such beautifully desolate setting.  The mark of a quality film is that it makes you feel something as well as think. Ala Kachuu certainly hits both of those marks.

On My Mind

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A seemingly quirky film that turns into something more meaningful and profound, ON MY MIND (Martin Strange-Hansen, 2021) explores the little things that make our relationships worthwhile and the unsinkable moxie of the human spirit. Despite its straightforward plot, the film soars because of its visual poetry and the heart of its performances. The film is about a man named Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) who is desperate to sing a karaoke song so that he can share a recording of it with his wife who is ill. It mostly takes place within an empty bar. The only other people inside the bar are the caring bartender Louise (Camilla Bendix) and the curmudgeonly bar owner Preben (Ole Boisen). 

The film is beautifully simple in its premise but poignant in its execution. The cinematography really captures the desolate feeling of being stuck inside this bar by making the space feel deep and dark. But the camera does a great job of capturing the intimacy and vulnerability of Henrik, a man who is willing to give all his money away just so he can do this song for his wife. The final image of the film is hauntingly beautiful and does a great job of providing closure for our characters.

Please Hold

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Funny and thought-provoking, PLEASE HOLD (KD Davila, 2020) is a charming short that is easy on the eyes but doesn’t hold back its satirical bite. Through its humor, the film addresses two major issues that perfectly present in this current moment: the imperfections of our justice system and our over reliance on technology. The film is about the misadventure of Mateo (Erick Lopez) who gets mistakenly arrested by a police drone sometime in the near future. He spends his days and weeks trying to breakthrough and prove his innocence to the flawed justice system, only to get caught up in the technical mishaps of the artificial intelligence that runs the prison. 

The film manages to hit the right balance of comedy and tragedy as Mateo tries and faills. And tries. And fails. Despite the comedy of watching him struggle, I couldn’t help but think about the underlying issues of the justice system. It subtly touches on mistaken identity, the inequality of the bail system, for-profit prison. A lot of thought-provoking topic that are squeezed into this science ficition comedy. 

It wasn’t difficult to immerse myself in Mateo’s shoes. The production design really sells a slick and shiny automated prison system as well as giving you a sense of the confines of being locked up. The commercials and graphics used as Mateo tries to hire an attorney makes the world truly come alive. There is a lot of production value within this short film, really elevating it beyond your normal prison movie. PLEASE HOLD manages to get the gears working in the brain while as the same time, tickling your funny bone.

The Dress

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THE DRESS (Tadeusz Lysiak, 2020) is about many things. It is about discrimination. It is about the objectification, and abuse, of women. It is also a character study into how loneliness changes how we perceive ourselves and how we navigate the world. 

The film is about a lonely maid named Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka), who struggles to find a romantic partner because she of her dwarfism. She finds a potential suitor in a truck driver named Bogdan (Szymon Piotr Warszawski), causing her to confront her insecurities and the realities faced by someone with her physical characteristics in order to take a chance  

Anna Dzieduszycka does a phenomenal job of bringing the feisty and love-starved Julka to life. She inhabits the world well and by following her from cleaning hotels to playing the slots to sitting alone in a dark apartment, we really feel her sense of alienation. The film is effective and layered and is well-structured that the twist at the end feels painfully earned.

The Long Goodbye

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While it may be the shortest of the live-action shorts, THE LONG GOODBYE (Aneil Karia, 2020) arguably concentrates the most intensity in its nearly thirteen-minute runtime than the other shorts up for nomination. The film follows a traumatic day for a British-Asian family as they are caught up in the middle of a far-right paramilitary group out for nothing more than bloodshed and carnage as they descend up immigrant families in a London suburb. The film is a tour-de-force for Riz Ahmed, who plays the protagonist. Ahmed also cowrites the film with Karia and the short features his music. 

The visual energy and sounds of the film fuse together, pulling the viewer in with its force. The beginning of the short lulls you in with the chaotic calm of a family get-together before turning into a frenzied state of panic and anarchy as the far-right group emerges to terrorize the community. The camera shakes and Ahmad’s rap becomes blistering as the intensity of the raid emerges. The film ends with Riz breaking the fourth wall and reciting a poem as the we’re left to sit and absorb what we have seen and heard. 

The film gives us enough context to understand what is going on without being too specific about character development or plot, but this kind of film doesn’t need that. It is effective it how it bombards our senses. We get to see and hear the horror as this family is persecuted and the weight that such subject matter carries. THE LONG GOODBYE is fast, furious, and insightful.

sundance satellite 2022: everyday in kaimukī

by/brandon yunker

There’s something about sitting underneath a night sky that’s both calming and provoking. There’s a vastness to it, a space that’s empty yet feels full. For dreamers it gives a landscape to dream and for worriers it’s a reminder that the clock is ticking. The opening images of Everyday in Kaimukī (2022), directed by Alika Tengan, introduces us to a world that seems friendly enough, while at the same time, introducing a world that our protagonist would like to branch out from. This film is one that explores life’s contradictions, all under the guise of a millennial trying to nail down what he wants his life to be.

Naz Kawakami and Rina White appear in Everyday in Kaimukī by Alika Tengan, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The performances are natural, which is ideal considering many of the characters in the film are fictional representations of the actors themselves. The story follows Naz Kawakami as Naz, a young radio DJ who is dead set on leaving his home in Kaimukī to plop down in New York City. Kawakami brings a cool intensity to the character that he portrays. Naz is a self-admitted “worrier”, yet he has no clear plans, nor does he seem particularly convinced that wants to leave. But something keeps pulling him away from Kaimukī, and it’s through his relationships within his community, and the difficulties with his girlfriend, that we understand his struggle to make this leap and to prove to himself that he can go beyond the confines of his hometown. The transition towards maturity and adulthood is a theme that has been explored many times before, but it is how the film looks that elevates the material towards something fresh.

It is through Naz’s friends that we learn what he means to the community. Naz is the face that everyone seems to know. Many of his social interactions involve skateboarding, which is filmed tremendously by the Chapin Hall.  The shots of the skaters grinding and hitting the pipe have the polish of a skate video. The slick realism of how the scenes are staged and the characters interaction with each other lends itself to the cinema verité feel of the film. The two-shot conversations look as though they are happening in front of our very eyes, as if we’re traveling along with Naz as he tries to tie up loose ends. The hyperrealism of the shots sells us that we are in this place at this specific time. It makes the film immersive and helps give it its authenticity, breathing life into the inhabitants and to the city itself.

Naz Kawakami appears in Everyday in Kaimukī by Alika Tengan, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

When one pictures a story set in Hawaii, the images of sunny beaches and hula skirts come to mind. Every Day in Kaimukī is not this. It is much more representative of a modern Hawaii, one that has grown but not adapted since the middle of the twentieth century. Kaimukī is urban and aging. When Naz is driving around he remarks that the roads and bridges are stuck in the 1960’s when there were “30 cars on the island.” Kaimukī is a place that still has its soul, it’s filled with people enjoying the warmth of the sun compared to how New York City is presented, sprawling and frigid.  But maybe places like Kaimuikī need a new perspective, something that Naz sympathizes with.

Everyday in Kaimukī is very much an authentically Hawaiian film. But not int the way most audiences would guess. Kaimukī is depicted as a growing place of commerce but at the same time it is also proceed a sense of intimacy within the members of its community. And while the film is specific in its authenticity, its subject matter is universal. It is a story about a young man forcing himself to make tough decisions and the journey towards maturation that happens along the way. The performances and cinematography come together to present a pleasurable character study that never feels as if it meanders but instead invites you to hang out and soak up the vibes.