2019 is another banner year for dour documentaries at the Oscars, with only one of the nominees offering anything resembling optimism. While this is perhaps to be expected from the Academy, that doesn’t make it any less trying. Still, it’s a strong slate with no clear front-runner for the award, and provided you’re prepared to confront the desolation of the human condition on your next outing to the local cinema, these docs are definitely worth your time.
Black Sheep. Director: Ed Perkins. Country: United Kingdom. 27 minutes. This deeply unsettling firsthand account of a young black man whose family fled racism and violence only to encounter more of the same in rural Essex takes an odd turn when its protagonist decides to ingratiate himself to the very people who have victimized him. Director Perkins blends talking-head interview footage with re-enactments featuring nonprofessional actors in the real-world settings described by his subject, lending the film a glossy sense of high production values that sits at odds with the profoundly ugly story being told. Still, Black Sheep is rooted in a universal desire for acceptance that provokes an often uncomfortable empathy.
End Game. Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Country: U.S. 40 minutes. Death is always a difficult subject, meaning it’s also a perennially popular one for filmmakers courting awards favor. With End Game, directors Epstein and Friedman tackle end-of-life care with an eye toward the human element, personalizing the thorny dilemma confronted by terminally ill patients and their loved ones as the logistical questions of dying with dignity become real with painful immediacy. A feel-good-flick it is not, but Epstein and Friedman handle their topic with grace and find at least some glimmer of hope around the margins of a generally bleak enterprise.
Lifeboat. Director: Skye Fitzgerald. Country: U.S. 34 minutes. Arguably the most depressing nominee among a lineup of almost relentlessly downbeat entries, this unflinching look at the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean puts a face to the human cost of the thousands of lost souls fleeing lives of almost indescribable abuse by undertaking the perilous journey from North Africa to an uncertain fate in Europe. Interviewing not only the migrants themselves but also the rescue workers toiling tirelessly to save as many of the desperate sojourners as possible, Fitzgerald’s camera brings us uncomfortably close to a problem with no clear solution. It’s powerful stuff, even if it is a difficult watch.
A Night at the Garden. Director: Marshall Curry. Country: U.S. 7 minutes. Documenting a 1939 pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, this film packs more terror into its scant seven-minute running time than most horror movies manage to in 90. Unfortunately topical and bone-chillingly disturbing, A Night at the Garden is a historic artifact that should be required viewing for everyone in the country of legal voting age. Probably too slight to be a real contender for the Oscar, it’s nevertheless a fascinating warning to all those who would forget history and be doomed to repeat it.
Period. End of Sentence. Director: Rayka Zehtabchi. Country: U.S. 26 minutes. The sole film from this year’s selections that could be considered uplifting, this story of a group of women trying to spread education — and low-cost sanitary napkins — to a female populace in India in dire need of both is surprisingly thought-provoking and inspiring. To address a topic perceived as an inviolable taboo in a rigidly patriarchal culture is one thing, but the fact that this film allows for the hopeful possibility of potential improvement makes it unique within the context of this year’s nominees. My favorite of the lot, which means it probably won’t win — but hey, I’ve been wrong before.