With Netflix, HBO, and other digital outlets looking for top quality, half-hour documentaries, the short doc format has gained a new surge in interest from filmmakers and viewers alike. This year’s Oscar nominees in the Best Documentary Short category are grateful for it, telling the crowd at TheWrap’s Screening Series that making a documentary shorter has its advantages.
“For me, it’s really freeing actually to make something that’s pared down to fewer elements,” said Kate Davis, director of “Traffic Stop.” The documentary interviews Breaion King, a black schoolteacher in Texas who made headlines after a police dashcam video of her being violently arrested after a routine traffic stop went viral.
“It just felt more like a poem, which was right for this particular story. It’s not a big legal case. It’s not the O.J. trial. The idea was just to put you in this woman’s shoes for a moment and imagine being in her life.”
Davis was joined at The Landmark Theater in Los Angeles by her producer, David Heilbroner, as well as directors Frank Stiefel (“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405”), Thomas Lennon (“Knife Skills”), Elaine McMillion Sheldon (“Heroin(e)”) and Laura Checkoway, along with producer Thomas Lee Wright (“Edith + Eddie”).
“The short form allowed us to keep everything in scene,” said Sheldon, who followed three women in Huntington, West Virginia, that have devoted themselves to fighting the town’s rampant heroin addiction problem. “We never forced the viewer to stop and watch someone talking to the camera unless they were in scene doing something.”
While last year’s nominated short docs included three films about the Syrian refugee crisis, this year’s contenders followed a diverse range of Americans tackling topics like mental health, police brutality, elder law, addiction, and in the case of Thomas Lennon’s “Knife Skills,” incarceration.
Lennon followed a restaurant in Cleveland called Edwin’s, which employs recently released inmates and teaches them the ways of French cuisine. Lennon says he found himself rooting for the restaurant and its workers to succeed, but also tried to keep some distance between him and his subjects.
“Even though I was very sympathetic…I never accepted any free food from the restaurant. I never let Brandon [Chrostowki, founder of Edwins] anywhere near any of the footage I shot,” he said.
Frank Stiefel, on the other hand, took the opposite approach with “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405.” His film follows Mindy Alper, an L.A. artist who attended a class with Stiefel’s wife and who uses her art to help with her severe depression and anxiety. The film delves deep into Alper’s troubled childhood and the daily struggles she has with her treatment, so Stiefel allowed Alper to see every cut he made to make sure she was ok with what parts of her he was going to show to the world.
“There’s a point where she starts to shake and I had to make a decision whether I was going to be a filmmaker or a friend,” Stiefel said. “I told her, ‘Mindy, I have to film this, I’m sorry.’ I determined that I would show her every cut. I knew I was in a sensitive area and I didn’t want to do damage.”
Sensitive areas are what Laura Checkoway had to face when she made “Edith + Eddie,” a film she expected to be about an interracial couple that fell in love at the age of 95 and 96. Instead, she ended up filming a tragedy as the two were forcibly separated when one of Edith’s daughter claimed legal custody of her and made her leave her lifelong home in Virginia.
“A friend texted a photo of the couple that was going around online,” Checkoway said. “I just kept staring at this photo and wondered what it would be like to fall in love at that time in your life. Little did I know that it would become a look at elder law and the legal guardianship system.”
Though each film had its own unique circumstances and obstacles, all the panelists agreed that having a camera in the room changed how both they and their subjects behaved and encouraged both sides to show deeper truths.
“There’s a curious thing about having a camera and asking questions…it makes you brave,” Stiefel said. “To not ask the question that’s going to make everyone uncomfortable would be to fail. Having a camera certainly makes me braver. I know why I’m there and that I can’t evade the thing that’s giving me anxiety because not asking the question is going to be horrible.”
All the Oscar nominated films in all three short film categories can be seen in theaters this weekend. Click here for more information.