The five short documentaries nominated for the Academy Award — ranging from roughly 20 to 40 minutes in length — represent an international cross-section of filmmakers pointing their cameras on the otherwise ignored or unexamined. In a short-form documentary, you cannot diagnose a social ill, attempt to topple a dictator, or crack open the kind of sociopolitical can of worms that a feature-length doc, like fellow nominee Citizenfour, can examine. What the format is well suited to is capturing minutiae, and building itself out of quiet observations instead of sweeping declarations. Each of the five films focuses on the domestic, mundane, workaday elements of life that don’t register on a bigger canvas.
White Earth (dir. J. Christian Jensen), a portrait of a small North Dakota town impacted by an oil boom, is the least successful at connecting with its human subjects, but the most successful at conjuring visual poetry from its material. Any environmental, social, or cultural ramifications of the oil boom lie outside the film’s scope of interest, but if White Earth is sparse on humanity, it is generous with its imagery: plumes of fire flaring into the fog, oil wells glowing auburn in the sunset, impossibly long trains of jet-black tanker cars snaking through the whiteout of prairies in winter. In any final analysis, it cannot be denied that the film is astonishingly beautiful.
Whether by coincidence or not, the unifying theme among the four remaining films is the proximity of death: Death on a daily scale, death as a domestic or occupational reality, death as a future fact, present fear, and everyday concern. Each film is attuned to the rhythms of routine, the binds of loyalty and family — specifically, the sacrifices parents make for their children — and the different ways people find grace, courage, and comfort in the face of the inevitable.
Is it gauche to assign aesthetic points and demerits to these true stories of life and death — stories that began long before the cameras rolled, and continue to unfold in the subjects’ blogs, ongoing work, or, at minimum, their enduring existence? Possibly. But whatever their faults, each of these films accomplishes what documentaries at their best can do: They shine a light and expand our world.