2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

Life, Animated

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Released: 2016

View on: Amazon Prime

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

Life, Animated follows the story of Owen Suskin, a man with autism, and his family. The documentary follows Owen as he graduates from a high school program and moves into his own apartment at a group home complex at age 23. He experiences independence, love and loss, and pride during this time in his life. He gets his first job and is even invited to speak at a conference in Paris.

Owen learned at a young age to view the world through Disney animated movies, and has since memorized many, if not all, of them. At his high school, he starts a Disney club that has dozens of members who watch Disney movies and talk about how the movies relate to their lives. In one scene, two voice actors from Aladdin (Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar, and Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced Iago) come to the Disney club to surprise everyone. Seeing the happiness on the students faces is invigorating. It made me think of the corollaries in my own life – what if I went to a Hamilton sing-along and Lin Manuel Miranda walked in? Joy is universal!

Owens parents and brother talk candidly throughout the film about their experiences with Owen as he grew up. Understandably, they experienced quite a bit of frustration. They also felt anger and sadness when the world didn’t accept Owen or made him feel less than human. At one point, Owen’s mother recounts a conversation she and Owen’s father had years before where they envisioned what Owen’s life would be like in the future.

“So who decides what a meaningful life is?” -Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind’s father

Life, Animated reminded me that we all have our own struggles, and that even though some people interact with the world in a different way than I do, we all hope to fit in and be part of a community. I, for one, have not had many experiences with people with autism. I had just one friend in high school who was autistic, and he is the only person I ever went to school with who I knew had autism. I’ve never worked with anyone who had autism, at least that I know of. I’ve rarely had interactions with people who have autism. I’m not sure what that says about myself and our society, but my guess is that we have segregated our society based on what we have determined is “normal” and what is not. That goes for all things – race, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities.

So what can you do? Owen was lucky because his family had the means to pay for him to go to specialized schools and life at a specialized group home complex. Many people aren’t so lucky. Autism Speaks is a national organization with many local chapters. They have fundraising walks throughout the U.S. that raise money for autism research and to make connections to supports and services for individuals with autism. Autism Speaks also has a lot of great information to learn about autism that are well worth the time if you’re able to look through them. In the end, I think it’s really about accepting other people, even if they interact with the world in a different way than we do.

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

I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck

Released: 2016

View on: Currently available only in theaters

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

In I Am Not Your Negro, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin. When he died, Baldwin was just 30 pages into a manuscript he titled Remember This House. The story was to be about the lives and deaths of three of Baldwin’s friends and civil rights heroes, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Through their lives, Baldwin planned to write about the current reality of black Americans, how it is tied in our past and our society continues to perpetuate it.

The film weaves past and present issues together using Baldwin’s words. He explains throughout the movie that the history of oppression in America IS America. This country was built by people who were enslaved and oppressed. The American Dream is achieved only through the hard work and suffering of people who were forced to come here and forced to work. Baldwin also makes the case that the American Dream doesn’t actually exist – the film portrays modern day mass shootings and protests that turned violent after incidents of police brutality and the deaths of black people at the hands of the police.

Throughout the film, footage of Baldwin speaking at universities and on television is shown. He is such an eloquent speaker that my description would never do him justice, so I hope that we will all strive to watch clips of him and to read the words he wrote. In particular, I was very struck by his words on The Dick Cavett Show, where he talks about the institutional racism that exists, and how that may or may not be indicative of personal racism. Regardless, we all play in to institutional racism, and thus we are all responsible for it.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

I loved this film, and I hope it goes on a streaming service very soon so that more people have the chance to see it. The issue it most covers is that of systemic racism, which is not an easy thing to change. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. I think one of the first things that we as a society can do is to examine the impact that our institutions and structures on different people in America. For example, we know that poverty is common among communities of color. Why is this? Well, it stems from a lot of history – we as a society have historically oppressed people of color. History is part of the present, so it also stems from modern day reality. How can we combat poverty? Through equal education, affordable housing, access to affordable health care, the list goes on.

Let’s start with just one of these issues: Education. The number of organizations and government entities working to equalize our education system is vast. There is one I’m particularly fond of called Communities in Schools, which pairs up people from the community to students in our public schools as mentors and tutors. Communities in schools also brings in what essentially amounts to case management. We know that children can’t do well in school if they are constantly hungry, or they need glasses, or their is violence at home. Consider getting involved with them in your local community.


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.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary


Director: Ava DuVernay

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

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

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” -Amendment XIII, United States Constitution

13th reviews the history of the United States’ enslavement of black and brown people, beginning with slavery and including our present day misuse of the criminal justice system. The experts who are interviewed explain in a clear and concise way how we got here. History has a way of sticking around – the face may change, but it still lingers.

The documentary discusses how Americans have been taught to believe that people of color, especially men of color, are inherently violent. Of particular interest to me were four examples:

  1. A societal belief that black men are likely to rape white women, and cannot be trusted. This myth is particularly absurd given the fact that many white slave owners raped their black slaves regularly. It has been invoked to justify the murders of hundreds if not thousands of black men throughout our history. One of the most famous examples is the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy who was violently beaten and murdered while on a trip to visit relatives after being accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. His murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury.
  2. The use of mandatory minimums and disallowance of parole for individuals convicted of even minor drug offenses. A stark example of the racism our country has put forth through drug policy is that of mandatory minimums for crack vs powder cocaine offenses. African Americans are more likely to be arrested for crack offenses. Federal law requires the same mandatory minimum for 1 gram of crack as for 18 grams of powder cocaine – until 2010, the disparity was 1 gram of crack to 100 grams of powder cocaine.
  3. Recent murders of black Americans, particularly black men, by peace officers and individuals who are acting under stand your ground laws, for simply walking down the street, asking questions, or running away. This has been happening for years, but has been spotlighted in the past few years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown...the list goes on.
  4. The prison industrial complex. 13th explains how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) worked in the states to pass laws like SB 1070 in Arizona, which allowed law enforcement to stop anyone who even “looked” like they might be undocumented. ALEC has also been working on bills to privatize probation and parole activities, according to the documentary. Laws like this are not meant to keep us safe – they have allowed for some people to get rich by locking people away for minor crimes, and sometimes for no crime at all.

13th discusses these incidents and many more as it tells the story of how our modern systems perpetuate racism against people of color in the United States. I really liked this documentary because it does a great job of tying our racist history to present day, and helps to open our eyes so that we can start asking more questions about current events.

So what can you do? I find that the Black Lives Matter movement keeps a good pulse on current events and organizes a lot of activities at local levels. At the national level, the ACLU is a great organization to follow. And here in Texas, where I live, we are lucky to have the Texas Jail Project, which works to improve conditions for people who are incarcerated in Texas county jails. I encourage everyone to check out these organizations to identify actions you can take and, if possible, to donate money to their efforts.