The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center will devote this weekend to Oscar-related films and events. On Sunday night, the Film Center will screen the 2015 Oscar TV ceremony live, with a buffet reception featuring Jeremy Berlin on piano.
In addition to the feature films Birdman and Selma, all three of the Oscar-nominated shorts categories will play.On view Saturday, Feb. 21, the Oscar-nominated documentary shortsdemonstrate how powerful explorations of social issues can be when executed in the short form. Each of the five nominations addresses its theme with the intensity and finesse a longer version might not attain, while audiences might find full-length treatments of these subjects too grim.
At 40 minutes, the Polish short, Joanna, comes close to a full-length film. Combining lyrical countryside scenes with dialogue amid a family dealing with the impending death from cancer of the mother Joanna, director Aneta Kopecz illustrates the way Joanna prepares herself and her husband Piotr, but most importantly her 5-year-old son Jas, for a future without her. Family milestones like Jas’ learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels acquire a special resonance. Rather than appearing ravaged by illness, Joanna glows with an appreciation for the time she has remaining. With rare sensitivity and very little sentimentality, this film celebrates life in the context of its inevitable end.
In contrast, the 39-minute American nominee Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry, examines the dilemma of suicidal veterans who reach out to volunteers on a national telephone hotline in upstate New York. While the subject may seem bleak, the heroism of the volunteers who work hard — often for long hours — to persuade veterans they can and should survive is palpable. Crisis Hotline demonstrates the value of educating viewers about the help available to American soldiers in light of the psychological damage often imposed by military conflict.
A second Polish entry, the 27-minute Our Curse from Tomasz Śliwiński and Maciej Ślesicki, examines the anguish of a couple whose infant has a genetic defect that causes him to stop breathing when he falls asleep. The directors repeatedly film the couple facing the camera from their living sofa, and discussing what it means to have such a challenge and how they should handle their baby’s disability. It is an effective stylistic device. While the parents find their situation overwhelming, shots of their baby, full of vitality and thriving despite his illness, articulate the life-giving power of modern medicine and the importance of maintaining hope.
American director J. Christian Jensen’s 20-minute White Earth lets the viewer see the benefits and downside of oil production in the Northern Plains country, primarily through the eyes of children whose families have migrated to the oil fields in search of economic survival. While filmmakers have explored many sides of the controversy over oil production, White Earth’s perspective adds an important and unusual element to the issue.
From Mexico comes The Reaper (La Parka), directed by Gabriel Serra Arguello, a 29-minute portrait of a man, nicknamed the Reaper, who supports his family by killing livestock in an abattoir. This film demonstrates the toll working in a slaughterhouse takes on the individual. In an era when vegetarianism has become increasingly popular, The Reaper confronts the viewer with some of the realities underlying the choice to eat meat. It is a visually disturbing film, but one that conveys an important message.
It will be difficult to decide which of these documentary shorts merits the Oscar: Joanna for its lyrical treatment of death; Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 for its compelling view of help for troubled veterans; Our Curse for the skill with which it addresses a life-changing quandary; White Earth for its unique perspective; and The Reaper for the sympathy with which it presents its subject. My pick is Joanna; but there are plenty of arguments for choosing one of the other four.
Live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, Friday, Feb. 20, 7:30 pm
Documentary Oscar-nominated shorts, Saturday, Feb. 21, 4 pm
Animated Oscar-nominated shorts, Sunday, Feb. 22, 4 pm
Oscar viewing party, Sunday, Feb. 22, 7:30 pm