Academy Awards Project: Best Documentary Short Subject


We have reached the most unnecessarily overlooked category of the Academy Awards. I’ll admit that even I did not give much thought to the Best Documentary Short Subject nominees for years; this all changed once I tried my annual test to watch every single nominee. Now, I almost prefer these shorts compared to the documentary features. There’s something so satisfying about a precise, concise documentary. There aren’t any sprawling ideas, or rooms for biases. There is barely even a major debate going on. There is light shed on an issue or story, and you briefly experience it. That’s it. With that speed of delivery, short subjects offer a whole new world for what documentaries can supply. I don’t think any of these shorts being puffed to an hour and a half would make any sense (this is still true considering some of these are around forty minutes in length). As they are, these five films say more than enough without the filler. Here are the nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject, ranked from worst to best.


Biggest Snub: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes
This is the kind of bizarre revelation that short subjects can provide. Here is a really weird confessional: a sin trying to better understand his late father’s character by going through his personal belongings. This continues once he discovers his adult video collection. With such a weird premise that only makes sense in a fifteen minute timeframe, we get just enough time to see if this weird experiment yields any results, but we don’t dwell in this unusual territory for too long. Also, don’t worry: all of this is told through animation, and home video recordings (no actual filth makes it here). A vimeo staple of 2018, it can’t get any more personal than this.


5. A Night at the Garden
The shortest nominee here by far (and close to being the shortest nominee of 2019, if it isn’t already), this found footage collection offers a brief glimpse at a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in the mid ‘30s. The music attached to this archival imagery helps tie everything together, and the seven minutes we are given are so powerful. However, it’s as small as it seems. I get the idea of why this film exists: it’s to compare the right wing extremist movements of our present to this championing of Naziism decades ago. There’s even an altercation by a rebel trying to stop the ceremony here. However, everything is just too short and too reliant on the present speaking for itself. It’s too bad, because these seven minutes are still highly nauseating (for a documentary exposing awful realities, that’s a good quality to have).


4. Black Sheep
This film was easily on its way to being the best of the pack. We get a candid story being told by Cornelius, who relives the moments when his mother moved his family out of London into Sussex to avoid danger. Instead, he faced rampant racism. All of these events are recreated by actors. Cornelius adapts by bleaching his skin, straightening his hair, and wearing blue contacts to appear caucasian. This is a powerful story with some great recreations and recalling by Cornelius himself. Yet, it just ends very abruptly. I understand that the conclusion is that it was bad for Cornelius to try to appeal to racists, and he only realizes that as an adult now. However, I would have liked to have seen a development of how he got out of this phase, when he realized this was only doing more harm to himself, and more. Surely, there is much more to tell. I wish we got it.


3. End Game
Not a single eye was dry in the house when I saw this film in theatres (you can easily find it through Netflix, as it is an original production by the company). This short documents the final days of a number of ill patients, particularly a patient named Mitra and her family. The film starts off a little forceful, as if the doctors knew cameras were in house and they had to say some poignant things. Yet, when the film gets going and the cameras become invisible, a much more verité approach is adopted, and you get the entire scope of the situation. The entire film becomes extremely challenging to watch; one part in particular that was almost too challenging is when Mitra becomes anxious over nothing, as if she knows death is approaching her. The goal of End Game is to try and find joy in darkness; it succeeds, resulting in one of the most bittersweet moments in cinema for 2018.


2. Period. End of Sentence.
The only comedic (or slightly comedic) nominee in this otherwise heavy weight category, Period. End of Sentence. highlights the issues of the misrepresentation of menstruation in villages found around Delhi, India. An affordable, high quality pad has been invented, and various female villagers try to sell this new product to the various rural areas nearby. Since periods are treated almost as a dirty sin, many subjects here are either too shy to discuss the topic, or they flat out don’t know enough information about it. While light hearted, there is a crucial point being made here that biological functions (especially when it comes to the female reproductive system) should not be taboo; luckily, there are people here trying to make a much needed change.


1. Lifeboat
This was quickly on its way to being the weakest film of the group during its initial ten minutes. It was a well produced short, but just a very slow one. Yet, once we get into the crux of the film (a non-profit European organization that saves Libyan refugees from overcrowded boats trying to escape human trafficking), it becomes impossible to ignore. The actual footage of these boats is overbearing. You see all of the bodies, the living and the dead. You hear some stories from some of the rescued refugees, and you understand why it was essential for them to risk their lives leaving their predicaments. The deeper down the rabbit hole we go, the more unbelievable it all becomes. You understand much of the brevity of the situation. Lifeboat is extremely well documented, and absolutely harrowing, making it the best documentary short subject of the year.

Our Predicted Winner: With short films, access and target audiences usually matter a great deal. With that in mind, I will guess that either Black Sheep (Vimeo) or End Game (Netflix) will take the crown.

Our Academy Awards Project is an ongoing series that will continue until all the categories have been ranked and reviewed. Tune in Monday to Saturday for a new category each day.

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Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.