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Numlock Awards: Not fit for live television, the documentary shorts
Now available on Netflix (mostly).
This week, I wanted to dive into one of the categories that won’t be awarded during the live ceremony — Best Documentary Short. We did this last year, and with only a few weeks left until the Oscars and office ballots coming due, you could knock these out in a single afternoon. The big trend in this category seems to be the growing dominance of Netflix — last year, only a single nominee was on the streamer, and this year they have three of the five.
The nominees are:
Audible (watch it on Netflix)
The Queen of Basketball (watch it on YouTube)
Lead Me Home (watch it on Netflix)
Three Songs for Benazir (watch it on Netflix)
When We Were Bullies (coming to HBO at the end of the month)
Audible follows a student football player, Amaree McKenstry-Hall, and his team at Maryland School for the Deaf trying to mount a comeback after their first loss to another deaf school in sixteen seasons. It also touches on the suicide of a former classmate, Teddy, and the impact that’s had on the school. Directed by Matthew Ogens, who is hearing but grew up near the school, Audible has some big names behind it — executive producers Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and actor/model/Maryland School for the Deaf alum Nyle DiMarco.
You can stream Audible on Netflix and I’d highly recommend it if you have 39 minutes. With CODA being a sleeper hit this awards season, I think that raises Audible’s profile as the other nominee centering Deaf people. Last year, we had Sound of Metal taking home two trophies, and there was some criticism from the Deaf community that both main roles went to hearing actors playing deaf. Audible, as a documentary, doesn’t have to contend with the same type of criticism, and can instead focus on its strengths — its authenticity, its deeply likable subjects, and its focus on the underseen world of Deaf sports.
“A lot of my hearing friends texted me initially saying that they love that we didn’t add any voice-over,” DiMarco told THR. “Oftentimes, when voice-overs are created, you really end up listening and not really watching, you’re able to sort of make dinner, or check the mail. What I think we wanted to force the hand in is really seeing the experience of what it’s like to be a deaf person navigating these really nuanced situations. And that was a big, very conscious choice that we made in order to pull the audience in.”
The Queen of Basketball
I may not know a lot about basketball, but even I recognize the names of some of the people behind this documentary about the first woman ever officially drafted to the NBA — Steph Curry, Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Proudfoot.
Sure, that last one isn’t a basketball player, but he is the 31-year-old wunderkind who got a nomination in this category last year for A Concerto is a Conversation. The Queen of Basketball is part of the New York Times’ Op-Docs Almost Famous series, about people who were close to being a household name but, for one reason or another, never quite got there. It tells the story of Luisa Harris, an Olympic silver medalist — and the first woman in Olympic history to score a basket — who was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977. (The Warriors drafted Denise Long Rife in 1969, but the selection was later nullified.) The WNBA didn’t form until the ’90s, shortening her professional career.
It’s a pretty straightforward film, told largely by the ridiculously charming Luisa herself as she recounts her basketball career, her struggles with mental illness, and her later life. Luisa, who went by Lucy, passed away a few weeks before the nominations were announced. Director Ben Proudfoot discussed the process of tracking her down to see if she was willing to tell her story:
“Lucy was living in Greenwood, a small town in Mississippi, and I reached out to a few people in hopes of finding her. I was searching for possible phone numbers, made some calls, eventually got through to Lucy and explained who I was and that I would love to come to Mississippi and help her tell her story. She responded, ‘Come on over.’ Lucy was very, very casual, and I said, ‘OK, maybe we can schedule it in advance?’ She responded, ‘I’m retired. You can come anytime.’”
Lead Me Home
Our second Netflix documentary, Lead Me Home, is about homelessness on the West Coast and, like Audible, also comes in at 40 minutes despite taking three years to make. Directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk have documentary cred — Kos has worked on The Vow (the one about the NXIVM cult) and Shenk has worked on An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and Crip Camp.
Lead Me Home focuses on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. As Shenk explains, those three cities don’t have much in the way of affordable housing. Given its focus on the West Coast, it’s a bit of a hometown favorite. That being said, while the Oscars love movies about Hollywood (The Artist, Birdman, La La Land sort of, etc.), this category tends to lean more international, so I don’t think its hometown focus will make much difference.
Three Songs for Benazir
Our final Netflix contender is Three Songs for Benazir, clocking in at a cool 22 minutes. It follows a young man and his wife in a camp for displaced persons in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is directed by the husband-wife duo Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei. They started shooting the film in 2013, after striking up a friendship with Shaista, the subject of the documentary, while distributing food at the camp.
The film does fit the profile of some recent winners like Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone or The White Helmets, documenting the lives of those caught up in a war-torn country. It also has the backing of Netflix, which, as is evident this year, has become a dominant force in the documentary shorts. And even though production on the movie started nearly a decade ago, the renewed interest in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. troops last summer gives Three Songs for Benazir a sense of timeliness and urgency. Unsurprisingly, the film is a tough watch and ends on a downbeat note, so we’ll see if voters respond to this or the more uplifting Audible or Queen of Basketball.
“As an Afghan filmmaker, I’m really happy to be able to have my film on Netflix to get into the world like this and show that Afghans can themselves can make films,” Gulistan told The Moveable Fest. “That’s part of it too, that as an Afghan filmmaker, there aren’t many. For us, having a global audience to the film at a time when it’s difficult to get stories out and to have this account of Shaista and Benazir will be really important for a global audience to understand the realities of Afghanistan.”
When We Were Bullies
This short is premiering on HBO after the Oscars for some reason, so it’s the only one I couldn’t track down and watch. Director Jay Rosenblatt has been making movies since the 1980s, and this is his first Oscar nomination.
The short follows Rosenblatt as he grapples with an incident from his time in grade school, when he and other students bullied another student. In the film, he tracks down his former classmates as well as the 92-year-old teacher to see what everyone else remembers.
I’d say this would be the least likely winner — it’s a small, personal film, that by definition is not exactly the most relevant to 2022.
I think Audible and The Queen of Basketball have the right balance of uplift and serious subject matter that makes a documentary short sing, and they’d be my two frontrunners, with a slight edge to Audible given all of the talk these past few years about the importance of highlighting Deaf stories. Lead Me Home is an interesting exploration of homelessness on the West Coast but as a film, you don’t really get to know anyone in particular — in stark contrast to the four other movies, all of which profile an individual more directly. Three Songs for Benazir is a difficult watch with a downer of an ending, so I’m not sure if it will turn people off given its tough subject matter. And as I just mentioned, When We Were Bullies isn’t available to stream yet, but it’s a personal movie about a very specific event in the director’s life, and there’s not a similar, confessional-style doc short that’s won in the category recently.