Oscar Sunday is only a week away. While many are likely catching up on the last of the Best Picture nominees, Shorts HD has been key in giving audiences the chance to see the other categories. The following is a look at the Best Documentary Short category's five nominees as well as a ranking from best to worst. It's a rather strong group with three focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis - so you know it's a harrowing bunch. Even then, it's more evidence of how powerful cinema can be to tell true stories and cover events that wouldn't work in a fictional landscape. The following features a great line-up that tell powerful stories, and prove why it's important to seek out the harder to find nominees.
1. Watani: My Homeland
In a year that provided three staggering portraits of the Syrian refugee crisis, Watani was the only one to show an optimistic side. The documentary follows one family as their father gets kidnapped by ISIS and the others flee to Europe for a better life. What Watani does best is capture the vulnerability not only of living in Aleppo, but also the neuroses that children tragically form when exposed to constant chaos. The latter half focuses on their transition to a freer society, and it's all the more uplifting thanks to the first half. Even then, what makes the documentary stand out isn't just that it personalizes something that many audiences see as foreign, but it manages to explore themes that are more universal in the process. What will freedom do to those previously suppressed? There will be a yearning to visit home, only to remember the tragedy. It is sad as well as uplifting to know that tragedy isn't the be-all end-all in these dark and chaotic times.
This largely narrative-free short follows the journey of doctors whose patients are at their most tragic. There is one question that is asked constantly throughout: do you keep them on medical care, or do you let them live and potentially die suddenly through natural causes? It's a situation that nobody would be comfortable in, and this day in the life focuses on that struggle from the patients' standpoint, as well as the doctors having to break the news to loved ones. It's a heartbreaking look into a part of life that nobody enjoys. Thankfully the lack of narrative structure allows the moments to never feel saccharine or manipulative. All that's here is a look into a thankless job that also tests the boundaries of science, religion, and emotions. How do you decide what's best for those suffering? It's a tough question, and one that is given due process here.
3. The White Helmets
Between all five of these documentary nominees, there wasn't a moment more powerful than the rescue of "The Miracle Baby." While Watani may be more personal, The White Helmets is a noble effort to capture a side of the Syrian refugee crisis that may seem futile, but makes a big difference. The documentary follows a group of men who fight to save casualties from the incessant bombing in Aleppo. Footage of the carnage in action comes strikingly often, making the talking heads portions all the more harrowing. Not only does the audience come to empathize with the White Helmets as people, but it captures how war impacts everyone in some capacity. Even if it's on the bleaker side of this year's nominees, it still has a feeling of hope that doing right will lead to great things. It captures an important moment in world history while showing that there's good even in places of utter chaos.
4. Joe's Violin
It may be a year full of bleak subject matter, but the Oscars had time to recognize a short about the optimistic joys of art. The story follows Joe as he departs with a violin that he got during the Holocaust, giving it to a young and talented woman to further enrich her studies. It is the most conventional of the five nominees, but manages to capture a humanity that shines. With plenty of heartwarming character moments, it is a jubilant and lively look into how art connects everyone, no matter how different their backgrounds actually are.
5. 4.1 Miles
The fly-on-the-wall documentary looks at a group of a Greek lifeguard team that save Syrian refugees who are stranded in the seas surrounding their village. The images are definitely unnerving and feature a heavy dose of peril. It fills the viewer with dread, hoping that everyone in this situation survives. The only issue is that despite the excellent urgency of the camera technique, there isn't much of a context here. The work is noble, yet it manages to not answer any important questions on why the central figures of 4.1 Miles are important, let alone how the people they save will live in this village. It's a small piece to a bigger, more important documentary that probably would have ranked among the top half of this list.