The 95th Academy Awards race: Best Documentary Short Subject

| February 23, 2023

The Nominees are . . . 
The Elephant Whisperers, Kartiki Gonsalves, Guneet Monga, producers
Haulout, Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev
How Do You Measure a Year?, Jay Rosenblatt
The Martha Mitchell Effect, Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison
Stranger at the Gate, Joshua Seftel and Conall Jones

Once, I could only dream of being able to see the nominees for Best Documentary Short (and for that matter Animated and Live Action shorts as well) but now thanks to streaming, these films are breaking out of the film festival walls and are readily available.  The Elephant Whisperers and The Martha Mitchell Effect are available on Netflix, while Haulout and Stranger at the Gate are available for free on YouTube.  The outlier is How Do You Measure a Year? which is a bit of a struggle to find.

The news this year is that both Documentary categories are scrubbed clean of the traditional Holocaust documentary, which leaves a lot of current realities and curious subject matter in the running – a couple trying to rescue an endangered elephant; a man bearing witness to the haulout of Walrus in the Russian Atlantic; a 10-year video updating of a couple’s little girl; a man coming face to face with the Muslims that he is about to assassinate; and the story of how the wife of Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell shook loose the stone walls of Watergate.

Two films this year deal with animals in danger.  In The Elephant Whisperers, Bommon and Bellie, a couple in South India take it upon themselves to raise and orphaned elephant named Raghu from infancy to young adulthood and in the process forming an alliance the creature that transcends language.  And Haulout written, directed and produced by brother and sister duo Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva, follows Russian scientist Maxim Chakilev, who observes the life of walruses at Cape Heart-Stone in the Chukchi Sea as they are beached due to the lack of ice upon which they traditionally migrate and breed.

Speaking of breeding.  The heart-touching entry, How Do You Measure a Year follows director Jay Rosenblatt’s daughter Ella through video taped interviews that he did on her birthday every ten years starting when she was two in order to see how she had grown.  Every year he would ask her the same questions in order to see how she would answer them.  While the film is adorable, its concept is not blindingly original (one thinks of Michael Apted’s Up series that he started in 1964) and that may prevent it from being the winner.

Also unlikely to win is The Martha Mitchell Effect, a film whose value comes in the fact that it may educate young viewers on a subject that many may be completely unfamiliar with (I’ll admit, I was).  The story is Martha Mitchell, devoted wife of Richard Nixon’s former Attorney General who left his post to lead the President’s 1972 re-election campaign and then got in hot water after the Watergate break-in.  Martha was a vocal mouthpiece and a threat to the secrets of Watergate that Nixon was trying to keep under wraps (she is mentioned several times on the tapes).  The film is fascinating, introducing us to a vibrant and charming woman that American history seems to have forgotten, but I think the Academy voters will find the film too conventional.  It is made up of a lot of talking heads and stock footage.  It doesn’t go out of its way to be very original.

The winner, I think, will stick closer to the bone.  Josh Seftel’s Stranger at the Gate tells the story of the members of a tiny Indiana mosque who nearly became the victims of U.S. Marine Richard “Mac” McKinney who planned to bomb their community center until something happened that changed his plans.  The current subject of anti-Muslimism coupled with the racial nature of McKinney’s plot may sway the vote in the film’s favor.

The Winner: Stranger at the Gate
The Runner-Up: How Do You Measure a Year?



About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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