Body Team 12 - David Darg and Bryn Mooser
Body Team 12 follows the horrific role of the Liberian Red Cross to carefully and safely remove the bodies of people who have died from Ebola from the poorest and most terribly vulnerable communities in Liberia. They not only deal with the difficult task of keeping themselves from being in danger from the disease, they also have to manage the grief and anger of the deceased person's families. Sometimes under threat of violence, they must sympathetically explain the dangers of traditional burial inside the community and lovingly deescalate situations that put these brave workers in danger. It is a brilliant and compelling film told through the eyes of one nurse who is doing her job for the good of her country.
Chau, Beyond the Lines - Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck
The long term effect of Agent Orange being dropped in Vietnam is a generation of children born with serious health issues and a variety of disabilities. Many of these children are sent to "camps" where nurses care for them and educate them, all the while firmly believing that these children have no future. Chau is one of these children who dreams of becoming an artist and fashion designer and his will and clever use of resources remind us that determination and belief in oneself can catapult us into truly unexpected places.
Claude Lanzmann, Spectres of the Shoah - Adam Benzine
If you've never seen the masterpiece documentary "Shoah," you must finish reading this blog, and immediately begin your 10 hour journey into the Holocaust. It is a landmark work, ironically never nominated for an Oscar but possibly one of the top five most important documentaries of the modern age. Claude Lanzmann is the brilliant filmmaker who took 12 years to make the film and make the world truly understand what had happened, and often put himself and his crew in danger trying to get authentic accounts from Nazis who had survived the war.
A Girl in the River, The Price of Forgiveness - Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
The subject of honor killings is examined through the eyes of a rare survivor. This film follows Saba, a young girl who married the boy originally chosen for her by her father when her uncle intervened and tried to have her marry his brother in law. When her family discovered what she had done, they swore on the Quran that they wouldn't do anything to hurt her and then they dragged her to the river, shot her in the face and on her hand, and put her in a bag and dropped her in. She survived and dragged herself to a gas station for help, and she had turned her face just enough to be injured but not murdered. With her uncle and father in prison adamantly defending what they had done as their right, the community of elders pressures her and her lawyer to forgive them, which will most certainly release them from jail - to be forgiven by your victim (or your dead victim's family) is enough for the courts to forgive the crime itself. And the need for harmony between the families is so great, that to withhold forgiveness is tantamount to shunning of her and her new husband's family. Like Saving Face (a short subject documentary Oscar winner by this same filmmaker), the total devaluation of women and girls in society is disturbingly real.
Last Day of Freedom
In a most creative approach to documentary storytelling, Last Day of Freedom follows Bill Babbitt and his discovery that his ex-military brother Manny had committed murder under the strains of post traumatic stress disorder. Compelled to do the right thing, Bill goes to the police to turn his brother in, but also to explain the mitigating circumstances for his brother who has never gotten treatment for his illness. Questions of aggravation versus mitigation, what is an appropriate use of the death penalty, and who is responsible for military personnel who come back with mental injuries are examined beautifully in this short film, with the incredible use of animation as its medium.
Having now seen all 10 nominated documentaries (full length and short subject), special mention of Sheila Nevins and HBO seems imperative. Without fail, each year her name is all over these documentaries, and the genre owes her a sincere debt of gratitude for identifying and supporting the powerful of non-fiction storytelling.