It’s a tough world out there, but this year’s collection of short, Oscar-nominated documentaries should give moviegoers something to smile about.
They “are a lot more inspirational and a lot less depressing” than in previous years, said Richard Beer, a passionate film watcher and festival curator whose day job is programming director at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver.
Opening this weekend at the Kiggins and the Liberty Theatre in Camas, Clark County’s two independent cinemas, are little films that deserve big attention. They’re short films that have been nominated for Academy Awards — the so called “Oscar Shorts” — in three categories: documentary, animated and live-action films. The average length is about 18 minutes, with documentaries tending to run well over 20 minutes and animated films keeping it quicker, between five and 15 minutes. Live-action films are in the middle.
The films are bundled so you can view each category in a single feature-length sitting, and maybe even take in all three programs before the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9. That’s earlier in the month than the annual Oscars have been doled out in about a decade, which makes the screening schedule for cinemas like Vancouver’s Kiggins and Camas’ Liberty tighter.
“It’s a really narrow window. We used to have 2 1/2 weeks but this year it’s just 10 days,” Beer said. “Hopefully, people can come by and catch them all.”
Even though the short documentaries still delve into deeply serious subjects, the overall effect might be to send you skipping out of the theater.
“Learning to Skate in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl)” is Beer’s favorite example. The setting of this 40-minute documentary is Kabul, Afghanistan, where many young girls are not permitted any access to sports or recreation, let alone a normal education. But one nonprofit school, with the irresistible name Skateistan, recruits impoverished girls. It not only equips them with crucial life tools like literacy, it also teaches them the joy and confidence of skateboarding.
“In a culture that doesn’t encourage girls to read and write and learn, or have any fun at all, you watch these little girls come out of their shells,” Beer said. “You can see how precious education is and you can appreciate the commonality of children all over the world.”
Beer also loved the documentary “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” about a Vietnamese couple who fell in love as teenagers and got separated by the chaos of war. After reuniting in California and working for years to rebuild their lives, the couple decided to stop putting off joy. “Walk Run Cha-Cha” focuses on their late-in-life passion for performing Latin dance routines in spectacular costumes.
“It’s the sweetest, most loving story about an old couple, their first love, the horrors they endured and their amazing love for each other,” Beer said. And it includes some jaw-dropping dance sequences, he added.
The subjects of “Life Overtakes Me” are neither skateboarding nor dancing. This documentary is about hundreds of refugee children, now living in Sweden, whose despair appears to have triggered psychosomatic, coma-like withdrawal from the world. Beer described this documentary as chilling, especially for parents. “It’s fascinating and very strange,” he said.
All of these documentaries fulfill their mission of teaching you something about the world you never knew before, so you walk out of the theater “a much more rounded person,” Beer said.
Tour de force
While documentaries are the real standouts this year, Beer said he also fell for the 25-minute, live-action tale “Brotherhood,” about domestic drama within a shepherding family in remote Tunisia. “The story is so strong and the performances are so natural and powerful, it really hooked me in,” he said.
The animation program is a tour de force of styles, from hand-painted cartoons to Claymation and beyond. “Memorable” is a stunning and slightly creepy exercise in watching the world slowly disintegrate; “Daughter” stars puppets amidst the nervous, shaky, always-shifting camera work that’s become a signature of “realistic” TV programs.
“It’s very effective and very disorienting,” Beer said.
Also disorienting is the current state of the movie-screening business, he added. Several of these short films — and many more of the feature-length Oscar nominees, across all categories — are already available to stream, rent or buy via services from Netflix to Hulu to YouTube. You can enjoy them in the comfort of your own home, but Beer sure hopes you’ll at least enjoy a communal first viewing at an independent cinema.
To sweeten that deal, he said, the Kiggins will sell $25 punch cards that get you into all three Oscar Shorts programs. Afterward, you can log your predictions for the ultimate Academy Award winners. Champion predictors get a Kiggins popcorn gift box, a pint glass, movie tickets and more.
“There are a lot of great streaming platforms now,” Beer said. “When I first started programming … I thought, I’m never going to see these films again. But now there are tons of ways to see them. Streaming is a great boon for film connoisseurs — and one of the knives in our back.”