2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary Short

The White Helmets

Director:Orlando von Einsiedel

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary short.

Before you watch The White Helmets, know that there is some very horrific footage. It’s incredibly important to see, but you should be warned. It is no surprise to those of us who pay attention to the news that the civil war in Syria is bloody and continues to get worse. But even when we hear accounts of it, we have no way to comprehend the all-encompassing nature this war has on the people of Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died, huge numbers of people have fled the country and are trying to be resettled as refugees in other countries.

The White Helmets are a group of people in Syria, similar to a civil defense, who rush to sites that have been bombed to try to save lives and recover bodies from the rubble. Since 2013, this group of men has saved more than 58,000 lives. The documentary follows them as they head to sites that have just been bombed to look for people. At one point, they dig a baby, not even a month old, out of the rubble. Miraculously, the baby is alive. At another point, they pull an older woman out of the rubble. She did not survive.

The White Helmets receive training on how to use special equipment and the best safety techniques at a site in Turkey. The documentary shows their training experience, and one White Helmet notes how peaceful and different Turkey is from Syria – just by crossing a made up border.

As time goes on, the White Helmets explain, more and more civilians are being targeted. Civilian hospitals begin to be bombed while a group of White Helmets is at training in Turkey. The brother of one of the White Helmets was killed while in a hospital. They also explain that the bombs have gotten more sophisticated and can now take out an entire neighborhood as opposed to just a few hundred square feet. The war is not showing signs of stopping. But despite all of this, the White Helmets remain optimists.

“Without hope, what good is life? People will die without hope.” -A White Helmet

So what can you do? Well, aside from keeping up with the situation and pressing our government to work toward humanitarian solutions, it’s hard to say. However, this documentary makes it easy to understand why so many people from Syria have become refugees and are trying to get to the United States or European countries where they actually have a chance to stay alive. In order to assist these individuals in making sure they can come, I have donated money to the ACLU to fight the executive order that came out a few weeks ago barring refugees from Syria. We, as in the world, have a moral obligation to find an end to the civil war in Syria, and quickly.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary Short


Director: Dan Krauss

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary short.

This was not an easy documentary to watch, and I imagine for anyone who has or has had a family member in need of machines to keep them alive this would be even more difficult to watch. Extremis explores the tough moral choices family members and doctors are forced to make when a person becomes so sick or injured that they can’t live without breathing tubes or respirators.

Family members and doctors are forced to try to determine what the person would want, which is not always evident. Some family members want to end suffering as soon as possible. Others believe that miracles happen and want to hold on for as long as possible. One patient featured doesn’t have any family to talk to who would have any idea what his wishes were, or to be with him as he died. To me, his story was one of the toughest to watch.

The main doctor featured in the film is a palliative care specialist whose job is to work with families and patients in determining when to turn off machines, which typically means that the patient will not live for much longer. The doctor essentially acts as a guide to family members, determining what she thinks is the best course of action and talking that through with family members in a sensitive way. You can see how much she cares, and particularly when the family does not agree with her assessment.

Extremis explores an issue that no one wants to talk about, but everyone really should think about.

So what can you do? End-of-life care is a very personal thing. For me, the most important thing to do is learn more about it and to have conversations with my family members so that if I am ever faced with this situation I know what my family would want. And also so that my family knows what I would want. One website I’ve come across that has some good information is called Supportive Care Matters. The site has information on support services for patients and caregivers, making your wishes known, and insurance and financial assistance.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary Short

Joe’s Violin

Director: Kahane Corn and Raphaela Neihausen

Released: 2016

View on: Vanity Fair

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary short.

Joe’s Violin tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who donates his old violin to an organization (the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation) that provides instruments to New York City schools. Joe grew up in Warsaw, Poland, and learned to play the violin at a young age. His mother was particularly musical. When the Nazi’s invaded Poland, Joe and his father fled (without his violin) and were sent to hard labor camps in Siberia for years. His mother and two brothers were sent to concentration camps – only one brother survived.

After the war, Joe, his father, and his brother were living in a relocation camp when Joe found a violin at the flea market. He traded some cigarettes for it, and it came with him when he immigrated to New York City in 1948. But as life continued, Joe played the violin less and less. When WNYC, New York City’s NPR station, held a drive for the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, Joe decided to donate his old violin. He was asked to fill out a form telling the history of the instrument, so he did. At the foundation, they determined that this instrument had a special history.

They chose to give the violin to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a school that serves mostly immigrant and refugee girls, and where every child learns to play the violin from a young age. The student who was chosen to play Joe’s violin is a young woman named Brianna who loves playing. Brianna and her music teacher invite Joe to the school to meet them and the rest of the students, and Brianna learns to play a special song for Joe. Seeing Joe and Brianna bond over the violin is probably the highlight of this film.

I think Joe’s Violin has a couple of important points. First, the obvious point that we cannot forget history – we cannot forget the Holocaust and cannot let anything like that happen again (though arguably it already is in some parts of the world). Second, music can bring us together, and it’s a gift that can be passed on. Consider donating your old instruments, or money for new instruments, to your local school or to an organization like the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation so that we can keep music alive in our schools.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary Short

4.1 Miles

Director: Daphne Matziaraki

Released: 2016

View on: Vimeo

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary short.

After the President’s recent executive order that banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries for the foreseeable future from coming into the United States (including refugees), this documentary short is particularly important.

4.1 Miles provides a glimpse into the terrible ordeal that many refugees go through to flee war zones. The documentary takes place mostly on a Greek boat that is called out to the sea several times a day to rescue groups of refugees who are essentially on blow-up rafts, packed to the brim with people, and not built for the sea conditions on which they must travel. The refugees have to travel 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, and the journey can be deadly.

I watched this documentary short mesmerized with tears in my eyes. There is no editing of the footage on the boat – you watch as the boat comes upon dozen of people floating in the water, fighting the waves and trying not to drown. You see the crew of the boat throwing out life preservers and pulling children, women, and men into the boat as quickly as they can. You see them giving CPR to young kids. And then, when they get to shore, you see them continue to give CPR to little children in makeshift blankets while they wait for an ambulance to come.

Not everyone survives.

“The world needs to know what is happening here! We can’t be going through this alone!”

4.1 Miles touches on the fact that Lesbos doesn’t have the resources to handle such an influx in immigrants, particularly the children who have been orphaned by the journey. The town of Lesbos comes together to save the lives of these refugees, 600,000 between 2015 and 2016, with little help. They recognize that these refugees are human beings who are willing to endure terrible circumstances and risk death to flee their war-torn homeland.

So what can you do? If you’re living in the U.S. like me it feels a world away – like I am helpless to this problem. But we are not helpless to assist. First, call your Senators and Representatives and tell them to act to oppose the President’s executive order! With enough pressure and a little luck, the order will be rescinded. Second, check out the work of the International Rescue Committee. Consider donating to them, and look at their “how to help” section. And finally, consider helping a refugee relocation agency in your local community. In Texas, we have a great organization called Refugee Services of Texas that helps to resettle refugees, providing them with assistance in setting up a home and getting settled in their new land, where everything is new.