It’s an interesting crop of nominees for Best Documentary Short this year, but there’s a clear front-runner in HBO’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which follows workers at a suicide hotline for U.S. veterans. This is the dark side of the protracted campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have produced a rash of PTSD cases and roughly 22 suicides per day among past and present military personnel. We never see the callers (or, thank heavens, an unsuccessful outcome), but it’s riveting to watch these professional counselors talk people down from the edge, sometimes IM’ing their colleagues to contact local authorities when a vet has made a suicide attempt or the threat seems imminent. It’s compelling storytelling, and an important subject in the national interest.
The other doc nominees fall neatly into two types: memoirish Polish medical tragedies and cinematographic slices of rural life. In the former camp, the touching Joanna follows a young Polish woman who’s been diagnosed with late-stage leukemia as she embraces the quotidian joys of life and writes messages of hope and encouragement to her 5-year-old son, Jas. We see her teaching him to ride a bike, preparing dinner, and happening on a rainbow while splashing through puddles in her wellies. Like its heroine, the film is clear-eyed but never mawkish: Chopping a cucumber in the kitchen, Jas asks her, “What are you scared of?” And the question just hangs there, unanswered, for several moments until cutting to the next scene. In Our Curse, filmmaker Tomacz Sliwinksi depicts his and his wife’s struggle when their firstborn, Leo, is diagnosed with a rare congenital condition called Ondine’s Curse that requires him to use a mechanical ventilator to breathe whenever he falls asleep. The exhausted couple’s intimate heart-to-hearts on the sofa are often wrenching (“We also used to say that if you think positive then nothing bad can ever happen, right?” he tells her fatalistically) — as is a long, uncomfortable scene of Leo hoarsely wailing as his parents grapple with changing the ventilator tube in his throat.
But for hard-to-watch scenes, it’s hard to top the beautifully shot The Reaper (La Parka), about a sad-eyed worker at a Mexican slaughterhouse named Efraín Jiménez García who dreams about the 500 bulls he kills each day — in one nightmare, they turn on him and say, “It’s your turn.” For the first fifth of the 30-minute film, there’s no dialogue at all — just a series of magnificently composed, gallery-ready shots of bulls and machinery. It’s almost too pretty. There are wonderful visuals in White Earth as well, set in the aptly named North Dakota burg that’s mushroomed from 60 residents to more than 500 thanks to the recent boom in natural gas drilling. The film offers impressionistic accounts of three kids and one immigrant mom in the town, most newcomers who’ve arrived with a shared sense of opportunism and ambivalence about the long-term effects of the current oil bubble. In one craftily edited sequence, the stay-at-home truant son of a single-dad oil worker sits in his mobile home playing a videogame featuring a wintry landscape which then fades into a real image of clouds of blowing snow drifting across a Northern Plains highway outside.
Crisis Hotline is definitely my choice to win this category, both for its gripping narratives and the heft and topicality of its subject matter, though the heart-tugging Joanna could pull an upset. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note I have a 50 percent track record in picking the winner in this category since 2004 — though I’ve been right for the last three straight years.) And as with the other Oscar-nominated shorts, the docs will hit theaters in select cities on Jan. 30; many will also be available on VOD next month.