Good luck guessing who will win Best Documentary Short at the 2023 Academy Awards. The five nominees are so distinct and particular in their style and approach to their subject matter that it is impossible to compare them. I can tell you my favorite is Haulout, but that does not make a difference. The good news is that most are available via streaming and YouTube, so you can catch them up before writing down a winner in your office pool. You are betting in an office pool, right?
THE ELEPHANT WHISPERERS
New camera technology has been a boon for nature documentaries. Small size, portability, drone capability, and high-definition translate into dynamic coverage. Kartiki Gonsalves’ film about a couple of elephant minders in the Mudumalai National Park in Southern India benefits from registering the spectacular environment and its fauna in such an involving way. However, the core of the film lies in the humans. Bomman and Bellie, a man and a woman in a sentimental relationship, care for a couple of orphaned cubs that need as much minding as a human baby. Their ongoing conversation, and frequent addresses to the camera, reveal their personal lives and the depth of their connection with the animals.
The movie targets a family audience. I got heavy My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020) vibes, although fortunately, they do not go as far as coming up with a voiceover for the pachyderms. It is charming and moving, but sometimes, one misses hard facts and context about the conservation program that employed Bomman and Bellie, particularly when their unseen bosses relieve them from their eldest charge, Raghu. It is emotionally wrenching, and the lack of explanation is an egregious omission. The feels are real, so do not be surprised if it becomes the sentimental favorite. The Elephant Whisperers is available for streaming on Netflix.
Evgenia and Maxim Arbugaev follow biologist Maxim Chakilev as he camps at Cape Serdtse-Kamen in Chukotka, Russia. He holes up in a small wooden cabin and waits for thousands of walruses to visit the beach. He counts the specimens, records their behavior, and takes notes of fatalities. Better writers than me would fail at conveying the impact of the event. Words cannot do justice to the images of thousands of animals crowding the beach and surrounding the flimsy shack.
I watched Haulout right after The Elephant Whisperers, which proved instructive to take a measure of diametrically opposite ways of documenting wildlife. The first is audience-friendly and sentimental, projecting human behavior and values on the animals. Scientific detachment defines Haoulout. Filmmakers immerse the viewer at the moment without coaxing a conversation out of Chakilev. Their intervention begins with camera placement and ends in the editing room. Not that the movie needs anything else. The view of a sea of walruses stretching as far as the eye can see, crowding against the flimsy shack under the non-plussed visage of Chakilev, is deliciously surreal, scary, and funny. All at the same time.
It is fascinating to watch and not devoid of feeling. The final credits confirm that this ritual of animal behavior is turning deadlier due to global warming. As glaciers become more scarce, the animals must swim longer distances during their seasonal migration. At the beach, they must rest longer and in larger quantities. The beach gets so crowded that the usual number of trampled and suffocated fatalities increases. Like Chakilev, we soak in this fact without shedding a tear. Watch Haulout in full on The New Yorker YouTube channel.
HOW DO YOU MEASURE A YEAR?
Jay Rosenblatt scored his first Academy Award nomination with When We Were Bullies (2021), an excoriating self-reflection examining a bullying episode from his childhood. His follow-up is even more personal. Over 16 years, he interviewed his daughter Ella on her birthday, starting at two and closing at 18. The questions are always the same: "What do you want to be when you grow up?", "What do you fear the most?" and so on. Occasional text on the screen shares the creative limits he set for himself, like not viewing the footage until the end of the planned shooting schedule.
The result is a 30-minute living document of time - and life - passing by. We see Ella going from a bubbly tyke to a bright young woman, passing by the inevitable morose teenage phase. Rosenblatt keeps framing and illumination mostly the same throughout the years, heightening the uncanny effect of seeing a person growing up by fits and starts in front of your eyes. "How Do You Measure a Year?" takes its title from a verse in the song Seasons of Love from Jonathan Larson's musical play Rent. It is like a warning. Here, sentimentality is not looked down upon but encouraged. The movie playslike a tighter, real-life Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014). The feelings you project onto the Rosenblatts’ personal experience keep it from passing for a glorified home movie. The movie will soon be available on HBOMax, where you can already watch When We Were Bullies.
THE MARTHA MITCHELL EFFECT
Between the Julia Roberts-Sean Penn starring miniseries Gaslit and this crackerjack short by Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison, 2022 was the year of Martha Mitchell’s renaissance. The ex-wife of John N. Mitchell, Attorney General, and Campaign Manager for Richard Nixon, is reclaimed as an unlikely feminist icon. It was an unexpected turn of events for the conservative firecracker who tested the limits male-dominated Washington set for women.
There are many ways to tell the story. Directors Anne Alverge and Debra McClutchy take the less-trodden path, using political drama to analyze a turning point in the relationship between politics, media, and women in America. Mitchell’s conservative ideology may be the opposite of feminism. Still, her rise - and fall - crystallized the pitfalls of a system that does not make exceptions for the women who believe in it. The movie employs a wealth of archive films and photos, doing an exemplary job at bringing viewers up to date on Mitchell’s power before considering her role in the Watergate scandal and the unraveling of the Nixon administration. Contemporaries like journalist Connie Chung offer testimony and insight, but we never see them on camera, fortifying the immersive effect of the film. It is like stepping inside a time machine, down to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the image. I hope Netflix subscribers allergic to vertical black bars on the side of the screen do not zoom the image in. Watch The Martha Mitchell Effect on Netflix.
STRANGER AT THE GATE
A teenage girl ponders how a loving father can also be a mass murderer in the opening minutes of Stranger at the Gate. A collage of disarming childhood pictures flashes as we settle on intimidating former marine Richard McKinney, menacingly facing the camera.
We are in Muncie, Indiana, where a man in the throes of PTSD sets on a collision course with the local Muslim community, particularly the mosque founded by Afghan immigrants Saber and Bibi Bahrami. Moody music and ominous drone shots of suburbia hit something awful stewing in these tranquil streets.
Every film director manipulates the audience, but Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones go the extra mile. Their movie apes the tone and style of True Crime TV. They edit their soundbites just so, so that you dread the outcome of McKinney’s actions. Alas, they cannot help to have their open-hearted interviewees undermine the ruse with their cheery physical language. As relieved and inspired as one can feel by the outcome of this near-catastrophe, the gotcha narrative plays like a cheap trick. Watch Stranger at the Gate in full on The New Yorker YouTube channel.
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