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Documentary shorts give voice to quiet citizens whose travails illuminate big issues

Documentary shorts give voice to quiet citizens whose travails illuminate big issues
Artist Mindy Alper is the subject of the Oscar-nominated "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405." (Grant Mudford)

This year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries forge a collective report from the fringes of American culture. Delving into low-key characters sometimes far removed from the mainstream, these nonfiction entries give voice to quiet citizens whose travails illuminate big issues — racism, drug addiction, mental illness — in 40 minutes or less.

Among the five nominees are “Traffic Stop,” which examines the life of Breaion King, a black schoolteacher in Texas whose routine traffic stop by local cops turns into a violent arrest. Interspersed with dash-cam footage of the encounter, in which the slight King is seen being thrown bodily to the ground, the film delves into her personal story.

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“Heroin(e)" profiles three women — a fire chief, a drug court judge and a minister — doing their best to tame the opioid crisis ravaging their West Virginia town.

The Envelope spoke with the directors of the remaining three films.

Head chef, Gilbert, with trainees in a scene from the Oscar-nominated short "Knife Skills."
Head chef, Gilbert, with trainees in a scene from the Oscar-nominated short "Knife Skills." (Knife Skills)

"Knife Skills" melds ex-felons with fine food in a story uncovered by filmmaker Thomas F. Lennon over dinner with New York City chef David Waltuck and his wife. Their unannounced guest: Brandon Chrostowski. "He said, ‘I'm going to open a great French restaurant in Cleveland and almost all the people working there are going to be fresh out of prison,’” Lennon recalls. "I hadn't even finished my meat loaf before I knew that this was a film."

Tucking a Canon C300 camera into his backpack, Lennon traveled to Cleveland and tracked the fitful progress of 80 ex-convicts training to master haute cuisine in six intense weeks before the grand opening of Edwins. Thirty-five graduated. "The road to recovery is not a straight one," says Lennon, who previously won an Oscar for his short subject documentary "The Blood of Yingzhou District."

"A number of people I cared a lot about got themselves into real trouble, which was difficult. Yes, there might be setbacks, but then you see these men and women climbing back up."

A scene from "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405," an Oscar-nominated short film about the 56 year-old artist Mindy Alper.
A scene from "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405," an Oscar-nominated short film about the 56 year-old artist Mindy Alper. (ShortsTV)

"Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405" takes its title from the musings of Valley Village artist Mindy Alper, whose halting speech belies the acuity of her psychologically charged drawings. TV commercial producer-turned documentarian Frank Stiefel became fascinated with Alper when his wife introduced him to her unusual friend from art class.

"I was curious about why Mindy was the way she was, and how she made this art," Stiefel says. "I asked Mindy if I could film her making a sculpture of her therapist, Shoshana. "

On-camera interviews ensued, in which Alper confided phobias, anxieties and bouts of depression that once proved so debilitating that she went 10 years without speaking. "Going into this, I knew nothing about Mindy's psychological history," says Stiefel. Marveling at Alper's capacity for transforming her personal trauma into semi-fantastical art, Stiefel enlisted Masaki Yokochi to animate the drawings.

And he learned to love Alper's eccentric use of language. "Pronunciation can be an issue for Mindy, but I came to appreciate how visual her language can be. She'll say something happened '10 times around the sun ago,' which is so much more fun than 'years.’”

Eddie Harrison and Edith Hill from "Edith+Eddie," a Kartemquin film.
Eddie Harrison and Edith Hill from "Edith+Eddie," a Kartemquin film. (Laura Checkoway)

"Edith+Eddie" came together fast for journalist-filmmaker Laura Checkoway. She spent six years on her first film, "Lucky," which tracked the travails of a homeless single mom. This time around, she moved quickly after receiving a text message about ninetysomething interracial newlyweds. "My friend sent me a photo of Edith and Eddie, and it just grabbed my heart," Checkoway recalls. "I kept staring at the picture, wanting to know more about them."

The next day, Checkoway took a bus from New York to Virginia, and that night, she filmed the couple tearing it up on the dance floor of a local honky tonk. Checkoway recalls, "Edith and Eddie both experienced this new spark in each other, a new reason to wake up in the morning."

In fact, the couple's morning routine yields one of the film's most striking sequences: Eddie brings false teeth over to his wife and together they start the day with porcelain-perfect smiles. But the light-hearted moments give way to dark developments when one of Edith's daughters and a court-appointed guardian pressure the 96-year-old to leave Eddie and move to Florida. "I went there to film a love story," Checkoway says. "Little did I know it would turn into a heartbreaking one."

Booted out of Edith's house during one confrontation, Checkoway and her two-person crew continued recording audio outside in the pouring rain. Even off-camera, the "legal guardian" system remains ripe for exposure, Checkoway says.

"We live in such a youth-obsessed culture," she adds. "Why are we not honoring our elders? Where did that get lost? We're really grateful that our film sheds light on this issue."

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