Tropic Sprockets / 2021 Oscar Shorts: Documentary

By Ian Brockway

This past year was very peculiar, and the 2021 Oscar Shorts Documentaries definitely testify to the circumstances we all have endured. These four films are hard-bitten, blunt, emotional and unflinching, but each is immersive and absolutely compelling. Every film in this category deserves your full attention.

First, “A Love Song for Latasha” directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, is a poignant study of Latasha Harlins and her unfortunate death, shot in 1991 while trying to pay for orange juice.

Latasha was a protector. She helped her friend Ty repel a group of boys who held Ty’s head a dangerously long time under the water. Latasha was also an A student with intent to become a lawyer. With visceral home video and verbal accounts by Ty, an impressionistic, heart-rending portrait emerges of a teenager with great dreams and spirit, whose mind is comprehensive and well-rounded in perspective, but who was cut down over a chance encounter in a convenience store.

Latasha’s killer was Soon Ja, the owner of the store. The judge found Soon Ja guilty of voluntarily manslaughter. She received probation, 500 hours of community service and no jail time.

Visceral, painful and affectionate, passages of this film look like a violent watercolor, corrosive and brown with rust.

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“Do Not Split” by Anders Hammer focuses on the Hong Kong protests of 2019. It is apprehensive from start to finish with all of the tension of a thriller. Protester after protester is interviewed, warning that Hong Kong will turn into a police state if the people do not act. Young men put their lives on the line, setting fires and confronting the police in the hopes of making Hong Kong free from China’s rule. Strange it is to see young people armed with sling shots and umbrellas attempting to fight a team of police encased in plastic with tear gas at the ready.

Whenever the black umbrellaed youth rise up, they are vehemently quelled by Pro-Chinese groups who hiss at them, pelting them with red flags. Then the pandemic appears and the streets are deserted. Only Nature has the power to call a cease and desist to all efforts.

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“Hunger Ward,” about the epidemic of malnourished children in Yemen, directed by Skye Fitzgerald, is arguably the most uncomfortable and painful film to watch. It highlights a woman doctor Aida Hussein Alsadeeq, who is obsessively dedicated, as is Mekkia Mahdi, a nurse who works round the clock. This film is excellent, yet brutal. You will meet two adorable kids, Omeima and Abeer as they cling to life, young girls severely malnourished and underweight. Abeer especially is haunting to watch, wide eyed somewhat passive, yet always watchful. One gets the feeling that she alone is recording her memories for future generations. As the physician temps her with a balloon, she refuses to smile.

This is not for the faint. Mothers see their babies draw their last breath. Adult hands envelop tiny chests in hopes of welcoming air, and mothers whoop nightmare shrieks. The film stands alone, unsparing and horrific in detail.

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In “Colette” a 90-year old woman of the French Resistance visits a concentration camp. Emotional and empathetic with the tone of “Schindler’s List,” this film in just a few passages captures both the magic and charm of Colette and her mythic brother Jean Pierre, who died as a mechanic in the camp. The mangled part of a horrid V-2 rocket, rusty with metallic pus, is enough to chill the blood.

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“A Concerto Is a Conversation”, the final film in the group is a warm and candid interview between a composer and his grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr.

Horace recounts a life of determination as he sets out for Los Angeles in the hope of escaping the racist South. Through verbal intervention, Horace gets a job as a suit presser, and then he acquires a job on his own. Life to Horace Sr. is its own reward. Joy is watching his kids grow and succeed. There is nothing more to want or yearn for.

Magnetic and buoyant, “Concerto” pleases without any guile and it is sure to be a favorite. The last scene in particular where the steam of a suit presser reflects father and son to illustrate a generational resemblance will warm the heart as potently as any Disney feature.

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Though these documentaries make for difficult viewing, they are all exemplary. Each is laser sharp in focus upon its subject and you won’t fail to be moved or affected.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com