What you need to know about the 2019 Documentary Oscar Shorts


We’ve been in a golden age of documentary filmmaking for a while, with countless features exploring the potential of the non-fiction form (i.e., Stories We Tell, Cameraperson) and even affecting world politics (i.e., The Act of Killing, This Is Not a Film). It should be no surprise that documentary shorts are similarly daring and inventive as they chronicle the world and its people.

Today at Flixist we finish our look at this year’s 15 Oscar-nominated short films by focusing on the five documentary shorts. While some of these shorts are online, you can catch them on the big screen starting today in select theaters across the country. For a fill list of the theaters, be sure to check out shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/.

Be sure to also give our previous Oscar shorts recaps a read:

Without further ado, here is what you need to know about the five Academy Award-nominated films for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

Black Sheep

Director: Ed Perkins
Country: UK
Length: 26 minutes

What It’s About

Cornelius Walker recounts the painful way he had to assimilate as one of the few black boys in an area full of violent racists. Black Sheep is the formally different non-fiction film in this year’s category. As the real-life Walker narrates his past speaking directly to the camera, the events are recreated in the actual locations where they occurred in the early-to-mid 2000s.

How Is It?

The mix of non-fiction and recreation gives Black Sheep the most cinematic feel of all the documentaries nominated in the category. Cornelius facing the camera paired with the recreation is powerful, and his facial expressions, pauses, and hesitations add unspoken weight. What does it mean to deny his own blackness as a means of survival, and can the depth of that loneliness and anger ever be fully articulated? The film takes on the air of a literary memoir. What pain and what self-loathing he must have been grappling with then, which makes me curious how it’s affected his life in the present. These are the surface wounds inflicted by pervasive racism, with so many more unseen. The lighting choices, imagery, and swells of string music in Black Sheep reminded me a little bit of Barry Jenkins’ movies. I wonder if his work was a conscious inspiration.

Since director Ed Perkins is white, Black Sheep also made me think of the empathetic imagination. What Cornelius experienced is far from what Perkins’ life was like. Perhaps the closest Perkins can get to understanding some fraction of what Cornelius lived is to listen to him and then create a representation of it. That’s the importance (and also the limitation) of the empathetic imagination, and a reminder why it must be engaged with as much care and compassion as possible.

End Game

Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Country: USA
Length: 40 minutes

What It’s About

An intimate and at times painful look at how different doctors and medical specialists address the end-of-life needs of their patients.

How Is It?

The longest of these shorts, End Game hovers at the cusp of being a long-short and being a short-feature. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a feature film as being longer than 40 minutes.) Given its subject matter and how well-observed it is, I feel like a feature-length documentary could have worked as well. The film is a Netflix production, and is currently available to stream.

End Game is a moving and at times difficult watch since it’s so upfront about dying. We observe a few people meeting with doctors and specialists as they confront their own mortality. They wince, sometimes their faces tremble with fear, and other times they seem to be at peace; with so much suffering, how comforting to see people reach that state of peace. We spend the most time with a Persian family grappling with the slow loss of a loved one to cancer, and what it means to be a loving mother and a loving husband. There’s such delicate, compassionate restraint in the filmmaking that I am crying a bit while writing this. End Game doesn’t wallow in misery so much as capture people trying to understand the inevitability of death.


Director: Skye Fitzgerald
Country: USA
Length: 34 minutes

What It’s About

Members of the German non-profit Sea-Watch rescue migrants and refugees who set out on the Mediterranean Sea from Libya in lifeboats.

How Is It?

At a certain point in LIFEBOAT, activist and sea captain Jon Castle says that people tend to think of migrants in the abstract rather than considering them as individuals; that the abstraction into numbers removes the humanity from them. Like a kind of ebb and flow, LIFEBOAT similarly differentiates between individuals and abstractions. The film begins with a single drowned body in a deflated life raft discovered at night, proceeds to show hundreds of migrants and refugees on boats at sea, comes back to their individual stories of suffering and escape, and returns again to statistics. The blend of these micro and macro perspectives helps bring the tragedy and the enormity of the migrant crisis to prominence.

Throughout the course of the short we’re shown volunteers for Sea-Watch rescue hundreds of refugees out at sea, and yet thousands more remain. The migrants themselves tell harrowing stories about kidnapping and human trafficking in Libya, and how thy’d rather risk death than the fate that awaited them on land. This is the latest document of a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.

A Night at The Garden

Director: Marshall Curry
Country: USA
Length: 7 minutes

What It’s About

Archival footage from 1939 shows a chilling pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. An estimated 20,000 people were in attendance.

How Is It?

A Night at the Garden was the shortest of these shorts, and for me also the most disappointing.

But first, the footage displayed here is terrifying. Thousands of Americans do the Sieg Heil salute and then recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Children on stage prance mockingly as a man who rushes the stage in anger is beaten; the man, possibly Jewish, probably had his life saved by the police in attendance. Watching A Night at the Garden reminded me of the bigotry and hatred that simmers just under so many polite veneers in this country, recently enflamed by the rise of nationalist movements all over the world and by the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Conceptually, I can see A Night at the Garden pairing with the closing footage from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And yet all there is here is the archival footage. Apart from some text on screen, we’re given no additional context. I wanted to know who put this have rally together, and if attendees were interviewed, and what the coverage of the event was like. I wanted more information about Nazi sympathizers in the United States before and after the start of World War II, and how this rally figured into the larger portrait of American fascism. This short feels like just a fragment from a longer piece; a potent fragment, but still something incomplete.

Period. End of Sentence.

Director: Rayka Zehtabchi
Country: USA
Length: 26 minutes

What It’s About

Women in a rural Indian village educate others about menstruation despite the stigma around it, and find empowerment from the use of pads.

How Is It?

Period. End of Sentence. is a reminder of how power structures can stifle the ability to discuss everyday events. In this specific case, the patriarchy has made discussion of menstruation in this rural town absolutely taboo. Young girls seem embarrassed by their own bodies, and because menstruation is not discussed, they are left completely ignorant as to how their bodies work. Older women recount shame when they got their period, and a sense of total withdrawal simply from dealing with something normal. The ability to mass produce sanitary napkins in this village offers the women of this documentary a sense of power, and sense of self, and even a sense of agency.

The lightest and most hopeful of the documentary shorts this year, Period. End of Sentence. is an empowering statement on strides toward gender equality and shifting gender roles in India. One line mid-short sticks out to me. A woman studying to be a police officer says she’s doing it to escape the trap of marriage. She wants to live on her own terms without feeling hemmed in or held down by a man or any men. It’s only natural.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.