April 23, 2021

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The Best of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

7 min read

Most of the fifteen Oscar-nominated shorts—five each in Documentary, Animation, and Live Action—are hard to find on their own. Fortunately, this year, as in recent years, they’ve been gathered together for a theatrical release, which, because of the pandemic, is augmented by virtual cinema viewings. The most noteworthy films are found in the documentary section; what’s more, one of the nominees, “A Love Song for Latasha”—by far the best of them—is, or really should be, already familiar to many viewers, because it’s on Netflix.

“A Love Song for Latasha” has a form that seems made for its subject. Latasha Harlins, a Black girl of fifteen who was living in South Central Los Angeles, was shot to death, on March 16, 1991, by a liquor-store clerk who wrongly believed that she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. The movie, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, isn’t only about Harlins’s death; it foregrounds her life, her connections with those who love her, and the unfillable emptiness that her death left in their lives and in the community at large. It’s a memorial film and also a work of memory itself—an intimate history that makes a public record of a private life which should never have entered history as it did. As a result, it’s a revelatory sketch of America’s long and bitter history of racism and injustice—and the silence with which that history is suppressed and, therefore, perpetuated. The movie’s brief span is rooted in the reminiscences, in voice-over, of Shinese Harlins-Kilgore, Latasha’s cousin, who was raised with her like a sister, and Ty, Latasha’s best friend. One of the most striking aspects of their memories is the prominence of Latasha’s voice—their specific recollections of what she said. Shinese and Ty aren’t only speaking of Latasha but also speaking for her, channelling Latasha’s voice in her absence.

Allison relies on dramatic stagings—not exactly reënactments but, rather, impressions, images called to mind by the interview subjects’ memories—along with animations (by Adebukola Bodunrin) and effects, to create a subjective portrait of Latasha, who met her best friend by rescuing her from boys who attacked her in a swimming pool; who, after the death of her mother, worked hard in school, and planned to become a lawyer and community activist; who, as the eldest of three siblings being raised by their grandmother, took exceptional responsibility for her younger brother and sister; and who was buying orange juice that day when others in the family didn’t want to go. Even after being warned that the store’s clerk had pulled a gun on Ty, Latasha was unwilling to believe the worst of that clerk.

The director’s portrait of Latasha is also a portrait of Shinese and of Ty—of family and community—and, despite its brevity, it packs great psychological power into its teeming collective vision. It’s a world in nineteen minutes. Title cards, like cinematic endnotes, refer to the public outcome of the killing, stating that the clerk, Soon Ja-du, was given only a suspended sentence along with probation and community service, and that “Latasha’s death became one of the leading catalysts for the 1992 L.A. riots.” The movie is no judicial report, but it’s intensely political nonetheless, in an original way: it shows the imposition of history and politics, the relentless public pressures, on the private lives of Black Americans. In her film, Allison offers cinematic resistance—in reclaiming private lives from silence, she asserts and establishes their historical primacy.

“A Concerto Is a Conversation” is also a Los Angeles-centered film about the public and private history of Black lives. It’s a dual portrait of the composer Kris Bowers (who co-directed the film, with Ben Proudfoot) and Bowers’s grandfather Horace Bowers, Sr., who, at the time of the filming, was ninety-one. (The film is available on the New York Times’ site.) On the occasion of the première of the younger man’s piano concerto, they prepare to attend the concert together, and the event offers a springboard for the two men’s face-to-face discussion. (In their memorably direct closeups, they make eye contact with the camera as if with each other.) Kris talks insightfully about his art, but the power of the film arises from Horace’s discussion of his own early life. Horace was born in a small town in Florida, where, as a child, he had a view of his father’s subjection to the indignities of Jim Crow, and vowed to get away as soon as he could; as a teen-ager, he hitchhiked north and then went to Los Angeles. Once there, he used a clever ruse to get a job at a cleaners; two years later, at the age of twenty, he bought the store—but still couldn’t get a small-business loan from a bank, the unstated reason, as he understood, being that he was Black. (Horace says, of the racism he endured, “In the South, they tell you. In Los Angeles, they show you.”) Instead, he applied by mail, and the tale continues from there. The movie is utterly without analysis, and its connections of the elder man’s struggles and perseverance to his grandson’s achievements are left unconsidered, yet hearing the conversation sparked by the concerto is nonetheless well worthwhile—a small fragment of oral-historical documentary that signifies a cinematic century of voices unheard.

There’s another memorial film in the batch, one from France that’s centered on the story of a cruelly and unjustly truncated life: “Colette,” which has nothing to do with the writer. The title subject is Colette Marin Catherine, who, at the time of filming, was a nonagenarian. Her older brother, Jean-Pierre Catherine, was, at the age of seventeen, a Resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation; he was arrested and deported to the German slave-labor camp Dora, in Nordhausen, Germany, in February, 1945, and died there six weeks later. The premise of the film has to do with a scholarly project to write biographies of the nine thousand French people who’d been deported to this camp. One of the scholars, a young history student named Lucie Fouble, is writing the entry on Jean-Pierre Catherine, and is about to spend a week with Colette, to interview her for it. Colette, who also served in the Resistance, had always refused to travel to Germany, and to visit the site of the concentration camp, which has been preserved as a memorial. Now she and Lucie travel there together, and their journey is the practical center of the film; its emotional center is Colette’s confrontation with her agonizing memories.

The movie, directed by Anthony Giacchino, is dishearteningly conventional; the filmmaker filters himself out of the story, out of the elaborate planning that it demanded and the empathetic complicity on which it depends. Nonetheless, Colette herself offers some sharp insights on the clandestine organization and the guerrilla warfare that she and her family engaged in during the Second World War. When Lucie asks her how she entered the Resistance, Colette’s one-sentence answer is a novel in capsule form: “You mustn’t say ‘entering the Resistance,’ like you’re entering a bank and saying, ‘Hello, I want to open a Resistance account.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

What’s most powerful in “Colette” is the lifelong rage that accompanies the main character’s grief—and, as a result, her ambivalent relationship with Europe’s bureaucracy of wartime memorials. Lucie discusses her academic project, and her work as a docent in a memorial center for deportees, in terms of a rational devotion to remembering the misdeeds of history in order not to repeat them. Colette faces the memory of injustice with a scourging passion that risks becoming self-consuming. The terrifying sublimity of her fury is on view during that trip to Germany, where the former mayor of Nordhausen organizes a meeting with her and hosts a dinner in her honor. At a restaurant, in the presence of a dozen or so honored guests, he gives a speech about Germany’s acknowledgment of its shame and guilt, but Colette vociferously cuts him short, at first on the pretext that she’s unwell, though it’s immediately clear that her malaise is a moral one—of disgust. During the car journey to the preserved concentration camp, Colette even asks Lucie why she’s bothering with the “morbid details”: “What good is all this documentation?” Lucie responds that she’s seeking to transmit Jean-Pierre’s story so that it won’t be forgotten. The arm’s-length movie, in its observation of Colette contending with an outpouring of a lifetime of emotion under pressure, replicates the impersonal dedication of official memorialism.

“Do Not Split” documents protests in Hong Kong and the mounting encroachments by the Chinese government on civil liberties there.Photograph courtesy Sundance Institute

Richard Brody
2021-04-06 18:59:03

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