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Oscars 2021: Mini-reviews of winning documentaries, short films

Fred Hawson

Posted at Apr 27 2021 08:08 PM

Best Documentary Feature: MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (Netflix)

Directed by: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Oscars 2021: Mini-reviews of winning documentaries, short films 1

In 2010, Craig Foster was free-diving in a cold underwater kelp forest at a remote location in False Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa. During one of his dives, he noted a special young octopus which had an unusual curiosity that caught his attention. For an entire year, Foster tracked her location and movements, eventually winning her full trust. They formed a bond of friendship with each other as the octopus not only allowed him to join her in her daily life activities, but actually had physical interaction with him.

This 85-minute documentary had the most lightweight topic among its fellow nominees which tackled health care fraud ("The Collective") to injustice in prison term sentencing ("Time") to the disability rights movement ("Crip Camp") to loneliness of life in a senior home ("The Mole Agent"). While the script had a tendency for cheesy melodrama, the simplicity and accessibility of its message may have actually worked to win favor from the Academy voters. Of course, the spectacular underwater photography of all the rich colorful variety of deep sea wildlife was irresistible in its beauty. 

Best Documentary Short Subject: COLETTE (YouTube)

Directed by: Anthony Giacchino

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Colette Marin-Catherine and her brother Jean Pierre were still teenagers when her family became involved in the French resistance movement against Nazi Germany in World War 2. Her brother was captured, incarcerated and subjected to forced labor in Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany. Now at 90 years old, Colette was invited by young historian Lucie Fouble to visit Nordhausen to pay tribute to Jean Pierre. 

This 24-minute documentary possessed first-hand trauma of someone who carried this wartime trauma for her whole life. This was going to be her first trip to Germany in her life. We fully expect that we would be going on an emotional roller-coaster as Lucie guided a vulnerable Colette through the actual places in the concentration camp where Jean-Pierre suffered as a 17 year-old prisoner of war. This was real-life drama at its most potent. 

Best Live Action Short Film: TWO DISTANT STRANGERS (Netflix)

Directed by: Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe

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A black graphic designer Carter James was trying to get home to feed his dog the morning after a first date. Unfortunately, he found himself trapped in a time loop in which had a violent encounter on the street with a white NYPD officer, Officer Merk. This meeting would invariably end in his death, no matter how he tried to change the circumstances. After 99 consecutive of these death scenarios, Carter finally confronted Officer Merk about their confounding situation.

This 32-minute short film may have prevailed over its competition mainly because of the undeniable timeliness of its story line. News about the excessive force experienced by black men at the hands of white police officers had been daily headlines lately. This film so frankly reflected the senselessness and even the hopelessness of this present-day African-American crusade at this point in history. The urgency of its pressing message simply cannot be ignored anymore.

Best Animated Short Film: IF ANYTHING HAPPENS, I LOVE YOU (Netflix)

Directed by: Will McCormack, Michael Govier

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A married couple found themselves drifting away from each other following the death of their 10 year old daughter. While they hardly spoke to each other, their shadows express their loneliness and need to reconnect. One day, the daughter's shadow emerged from the record player playing her favorite song to engage her parents to relive memorable events in their life together as a family, from time of her birth to her final day.

This animated short film ran for only 12 minutes. It was mostly in black and white, with only certain important items appearing in color for emphasis.Those final five minutes recounting the day she entered her school for the last time and the last text message she was able to send out, were painful and heart-wrenching yet still hopeful. The emotional connection of the piece was very strong despite the simplicity of its artwork and brevity of its running time. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."