How Directors of Oscar-Nominated Doc Shorts Tell Big Stories in Small Packages (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: The filmmakers sat with TheWrap to talk about their shorts, which tackle climate change, racism and more

When it comes to telling stories, most filmmakers prefer to let the material do the talking. That was the case for the six Oscar-nominated directors of doc shorts who gathered with TheWrap’s Executive Awards Editor, Steve Pond, as part of TheWrap’s 2022-2023 Awards Season Screening Series: Kartiki Gonsalves (“The Elephant Whisperers”), Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev (“Haulout”), Anne Alvergue (“The Martha Mitchell Effect”), Jay Rosenblatt (“How Do You Measure a Year?”) and Joshua Seftel (“Stranger at the Gate”).

For Gonsalves, whose film focuses on a couple from a small village in southern India who rescues an orphaned elephant, less was more. “I just wanted ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ to let viewers understand both the elephant and the human carers with very little, almost minimal outside interpretation,” she said. “I was really trying to focus on the dignity of both the elephants and the indigenous people who have literally lived with them and cared for them for centuries. I wanted to get the audience to stop seeing animals as the other, and to get them to start seeing them as one of us.”

“Haulout” also contends with the natural world: It explores the tragedy of seals stranded on land in the Siberian arctic due to climate change. “Our film has super minimal dialogue,” Arbugaev said. “We just really wanted to, first of all, give space to the natural elements — to the landscape, wind, and tundra — and we felt that it needs this space without words to set the atmosphere to get the viewer to feel the place. And also, because the first time we encountered the story, we had such a strong reaction and we were in such an emotional journey that we wanted to keep that for the viewer as well.”

For several of the filmmakers, there was also the importance of re-establishing a human element in stories, like the protagonist of “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” the Watergate whistleblower who was all but destroyed by Richard Nixon’s cronies. By using archival footage of Mitchell, who was the wife of Nixon’s attorney general, Alvergue gave her a voice that history had drowned out for years.

“This isn’t just a play-by-play of what happened to Martha, this hidden figure who played a larger role in Watergate,” she said. “It’s also a love triangle. It’s the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s also a love triangle in the sense that it was Martha and Nixon sort of battling it out to vie for the attention of John Mitchell. And in the end, it’s a tragedy. John Michell chooses his boss over his wife. So it really is the human side of the scandal.”

Seftel also zeroed in on the power of human emotion in his chronicle of an American soldier with PTSD who returns from Afghanistan and plans to blow up a local mosque. “In some ways the film is like a case study of a hate crime, but a hate crime that never happened,” he said. “And we don’t hear those stories often enough. In some ways, it’s a blueprint for how to have a positive outcome.”

“This woman, Bibi Bahrami, the main character of our film, when she finds out that people hate her because of what she believes in, because of her religion, because of the head covering that she wears, her first reaction is she wants to invite them over for dinner and to talk with them and to actually build a bridge to change their mind,” Seftel said. “And I think that we’re all capable of doing that. We all have that agency, to be kind to the people around us, to welcome strangers, to welcome people that we don’t know or that maybe seem different from us.”

Each filmmaker spoke with passion about their work, but perhaps none more so than Rosenblatt when he explained the challenges he faced making “How Do You Measure a Year?” which documented the first 18 years of his daughter’s life with video shot annually on her birthday.

“My daughter was great throughout. But, you know, she was growing up. And there were a lot of challenges, just keeping her focus, especially when she was really young,” he said. “More than the challenges, it was just this very joyful process and very, very loving. I’ve never made a film with a subject I loved this much.”

Watch the full discussion here.