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Numlock Awards: Meet the documentary shorts, five nominees you could watch in an afternoon
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.
Let’s continue our deep dives into some of the lesser-known categories with the Documentary Shorts, which include everything from an Ava DuVernay-produced doc to a movie featured in a virtual reality video game. The nominees are:
Colette (watch it at The Guardian)
A Concerto Is a Conversation (watch it on YouTube)
Do Not Split (watch it here)
Hunger Ward (watch on Paramount+ or Pluto TV)
A Love Song for Latasha (watch it on Netflix)
Colette tells the story of a French resistance fighter who, years after World War II, finally visits Germany and the concentration camp where her brother was killed.
Colette is featured in the virtual reality video game Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. I don’t know how much folks know about first-person shooters, but Medal of Honor has a pretty fascinating back story. In 1997, Steven Spielberg shepherded the creation of the original Medal of Honor, a realistic WWII-based shooter. A few years later, another long-running franchise got off the ground with its own WWII take: Call of Duty.
As insanely toxic as some of those games’ communities have become, they did originate with a three-time Academy Award winning director who was trying to move games away from fantasy and into historical reality. And Medal of Honor has always been something of the responsible, mature older brother to Call of Duty’s insane younger brother who wrecks your parents’ car on a midnight run to Denny’s.
Speaking of brothers: Colette was directed by Anthony Giacchino, younger brother of Michael Giacchino, who you may know as the Oscar-winning composer of Up and Lost or the composer of, you guessed it, the original Medal of Honor games.
“It was imperative that we go beyond the use of archival footage because we’re running out of time to preserve these oral histories,” Giacchino told the Oculus blog. “Whether this documentary wins or loses, we’re fortunate to have heard Colette’s story and played a small part in bringing healing to one of the last survivors of the French Resistance and all it stood for.”
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Kris Bowers is a young composer who’s worked on the scores of Bridgerton, The United States vs. Billie Holliday, and Best Picture winner Green Book. (Remember Green Book??)
He’s also now an Oscar nominee for the documentary short A Concerto Is a Conversation, which shows Bowers tracing his family history through interviews with his grandfather, Horace Bowers. Horace grew up in the Jim Crow South and hitchhiked his way out in the 1940s, landing in Los Angeles.
Ava DuVernay is an executive producer on the documentary, which is part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series. The short was directed by Bowers himself and filmmaker Ben Proudfoot who, according to his website, was “once a world champion in sleight-of-hand magic.” I’m not really sure what the world championships for sleight-of-hand magic are, but I’d love to see an Op-Doc on those.
It’s only 13 minutes, and I highly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the mood for a good, uplifting kind of cry.
Do Not Split
Anders Hammer directed Do Not Split, about the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong.
“It was very difficult to understand how this would work. How could this small group of young people fight China?” Anders told Vox. “At the same time, it was really something unique to watch how they work together. You could really sense that solidarity among the protesters, and a great deal of sacrifice and this communion feeling in the street.”
As you may imagine, it wasn’t always the easiest documentary to shoot.
“I was also hit by some rubber bullets… I broke my nose,” he told Deadline. “That was the worst that happened to me, and that hurt, but it wasn’t a big problem.”
The topic of the documentary may have been one of the factors contributing to Hong Kong’s TVB station’s decision not to air the Oscars telecast this year for the first time since 1969.
Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward takes audiences inside feeding centers in Yemen, where healthcare workers are fighting against starvation. The film focuses on two healthcare professionals in particular: Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi.
It took almost nine months just to get the visas to enter the country to film the short, according to the LA Times. After just two hours of filming, Fitzgerald and his crew witnessed a child die.
“We didn’t set out to do an NGO video about starving children,” he told the Times. “We set out to try to do something where, hopefully, at the end of it, people would understand on a deep and visceral level what it’s like to lose a child in 2020 from hunger.”
This is Fitzgerald’s second Oscar nomination — his first was for the documentary short Lifeboat, about volunteers trying to help refugees in the Mediterranean. Despite its subject matter, the film is being released by MTV Documentary Films, because vertical integration makes no sense.
A Love Song for Latasha
A Love Song for Latasha tells the story of Latasha Harlins, who was killed in 1991. The subsequent criminal trial of Soon Ja Du — resulting in probation instead of jail time — right before the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case helped spark the L.A. riots of 1992.
Director Sophia Nahli Allison spoke to Harlins’ cousin and best friend to paint a picture of who Harlins was in life.
“I really wanted the image of a Black girl to be seen throughout all of A Love Song for Latasha, that no matter the story we’re listening to, we’re always seeing a young Black girl on the screen, we’re always remembering a young Black girl is who we are discussing,” Allison told Deadline. “It’s never a woman.”
And it seems like viewers are responding to the short doc — Netflix provided some data to Variety in the wake of the Oscar nominations, and A Love Song for Latasha saw the biggest post-Oscar viewership bump, rising 1,802 percent in the seven days after the nominations.