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A&E >  Entertainment

Emotional documentaries dominate Oscar shorts field

Feb. 23, 2017 Updated Thu., Feb. 23, 2017 at 1:34 p.m.

By James Verniere Tribune News Service

As usual with the process for nominating short documentary films for Academy Awards, those nominated by far tend to be emotional sucker punches, many of them inviting us to wallow in the suffering of others. If like me, you often find this gratuitous and crass, you may want to think twice about exposing yourself to unnecessary emotional distress.

For the rest, these five nominees offer unmistakable insight into the troubles that have plagued and continue to plague our world.

Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen’s “Joe’s Violin,” by far the least “miserable-ist” of the five nominees, can be filed under: heartwarming. In it, we meet two people who could not be more different. Elderly Joe Feingold is a Polish Holocaust survivor and musician who has been forced to stop playing by extreme old age and decided to give away his valuable violin in a New York City public school program that will gift the instrument to a deserving and probably economically unfortunate student. In this case, it is Brianna Perez, a 12-year-old burgeoning musician.

The Greek-American co-production from director Daphne Matziaraki, “4.1 Miles,” tells the daunting story of a few days in the life of a Greek Coast Guard captain who finds himself responsible for rescuing far too many refugees from such war-torn places as Syria. These poor fugitives pay smugglers in Turkey, who send them on their way in boats too small or not seaworthy to make the voyage. Disaster frequently strikes. The toll taken on them and the all-too-human captain and his crew is difficult to watch.

Similarly troubling is the Syrian-German-United Kingdom co-production “Watani: My Homeland,” the story of a small family in Aleppo trying to survive the Syrian war together and then being separated after ISIS takes away the father, a revolutionary fighting against Assad’s regime, threatening to “butcher him.” The effort these war-deprived children especially make to acclimate themselves to a new home, new school and friends in Germany is particularly edifying.

Dan Krauss’ “Extremis,” a Netflix production, is a depiction of human beings at the end of their lives, some of them prematurely, who must learn, along with their families, to accept that a dignified death is the only door left open to them. Also from Netflix, “The White Helmets” begins with a bomb exploding. As admirable as the work of the Syrian Civil Defense, aka the White Helmets, might be, not to mention filmmakers who follow the rescuers into the smoking, burning rubble, I don’t know that I need these heroic young men, at least one of them a former Assad government fighter, telling me that “all lives matter.” Watching the White Helmets train in Turkey and get news on their phones of strikes that may have killed family members, whose photos they look at on their phones, is arguably a paltry form of filmmaking, however admirable the work the White Helmets continue to do.

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