Disability in sport, homelessness, school bullying and war-induced displacement are some of the themes of the films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) this year. All five works showcase the capacity of individuals to overcome adverse circumstances.

More importantly, these films attest to an increasing willingness on the part of documentary filmmakers to incorporate fictional methods, to dramatize their material in collaboration with their subjects. Whether this impulse stems from a concern to compete with fiction films for the viewer’s attention or from a confidence in the authenticity of their narratives remains to be seen. But on the evidence of some of these shorts, we may be witnessing the evolution of a Netflix documentary aesthetic.

The Queen of Basketball (2021) is a relatively conventional biographical sketch about Lusia Harris, an icon of women’s basketball in the US and the only woman to be drafted by the men’s NBA. Harris, who passed away in January, was the tenth of eleven children in a family of sharecroppers in the state of Mississippi. Towering at 6’3”, she was part of the college team at Delta State University that won three consecutive national championships.

As a poor Black woman in the Deep South, and one who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in life, Harris has evidently had to overcome several disadvantages. Where a feature length documentary would have furnished more context, The Queen of Basketball touches upon these aspects of her identity only in passing. Interspersing interviews with Harris with archival clips of her games, director Ben Proudfoot focuses instead on her individual accomplishment.

Some of the sports footage is rousingly scored to Vivaldi, but Proudfoot multiplies the cuts for no apparent reason other than to impart some pace to the film. That Harris’ statements are constantly interrupted by edits may owe to issues of articulation, but when key passages of play are also broken into multiple shots, it takes something away from their power.

Basketball is often promoted as a way out of poverty for Black children, but Harris’ case illustrates a telling counter-example: as there was no women’s NBA at the time, Harris struggled to make a living, had to give up playing in order to raise a family. The film ends on the note that all her children are highly educated today, two of them holding doctorates. Does she have regrets about her shortened career?  “Maybe the world would have known my name had I continued playing. But I didn’t, so I don’t speculate,” she smiles.

Audible (2021), in contrast, is a sports biography in the present. At its centre Amaree, a football player representing the Maryland School for the Deaf. Directed by Matt Ogens, the film follows Amaree through his senior year, his relationship with his family and friends and the intense training that he and his teammates undergo after a scarring defeat. As a hearing-impaired team, Amaree and co. are certainly disadvantaged in the field in some ways, but as their coach says, it also helps them cut out the noise from outside.

An undiscerning viewer could mistake Audible for an underdog sports drama, thanks to its slick finish with stroboscopic lighting effects, slow-motion sequences and impressive sports photography. There is a pointed fictional quality to the scenes featuring Amaree’s conversations with his girlfriend and his estranged father. Interviews with Amaree and his friends are interestingly presented in sign language, without voiceover and with subtitles, which makes the film’s sound design choices more transparent. On the other hand, Amaree’s father’s speeches at the church aren’t accompanied by any on-screen sign language, prompting the question of whether the film was conceived only for the hearing.

There is lingering doubt as to what future awaits Amaree and his mates after school, when they have to go out into the world without the protection of their community. Sensitive to discrimination, however, the youngsters seem more accepting of racial and sexual differences, more determined to prove themselves equal. From the looks of it, the kids are alright.

The future is also in contention in Three Songs for Benazir (2021), the only nominee not set in the US. The film is a human-interest story that follows Shaista and his wife Benazir, a young couple internally displaced by the war in Afghanistan and interned in a refugee camp in Kabul. Shaista is faced with the option of either joining the national army or going to work in the poppy fields. The former would earn him a respectable living, but at the risk of antagonizing the Taliban, who still seem to hold sway over the refugees’ lives. Harvesting opium, on the other hand, would pose the risk of addiction and of coming under the influence of the Taliban.

Members of Shaista’s family refuse to sign his enlistment form, and his conversations with them comprise the most absorbing moments of the film. Shaista’s father tells him that, because he doesn’t have an education, someone would steal his “machine gun and satellite.” Shaista’s brothers are a little more convincing, pointing to his pregnant wife who might be widowed. Hovering over these exchanges is the US presence in the form of a surveillance balloon, an eye just as omniscient as the Taliban with their ears to the ground.

On the margins of it all is Benazir herself, a silent witness but also a moving force. Over the course of the film, shot over many years, we see her transform from a giggly girl slapping her husband’s arm to a taciturn woman covering her face in front of the camera. In the end, when she comes with her two boys to a rehab centre that Shaista has been admitted to, we perceive the toll of time on her face just as much as on her husband’s emaciated body.

Like Shaista and Benazir, some of the participants of Lead Me Home (2021) are hopeful despite their bleak circumstances. Shot in the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle between 2017 and 2020, the film explores the problem of homelessness in the West Coast. Directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk offer a composite if clouded picture of the phenomenon, juxtaposing everyday scenes from the lives of homeless individuals with soundbites from NGOs, policy makers and citizens. Filmed seductively in tracking or drone shots, the cities themselves become a character, their streets and parks dotted with rows and rows of shanty settlements.

The list of interviewees spans genders, age groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations and marital status, and each one comes to the welfare services with a different set of expectations and problems. The most harrowing account is that of a single mother who, pregnant again by rape, tries to keep her children away from the streets. For someone not familiar with the relevant public policy, it is not always clear why certain participants come back to the streets after getting an apartment or why they can’t find jobs. More than any of the other nominees, this is the film that needed an elaborate, Frederick Wiseman treatment.

Unlike the other four works, When We Were Bullies (2021) is structured around an absence. When filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt contacted Richard Silberg for some voiceover work, he realized that they were both perpetrators in the same bullying incident at elementary school. Amazed at the coincidence, but also ashamed at his participation in the event, Rosenblatt set out on an investigation. He reached out to all his classmates in grade five involved in the act, asking them what they remember of the victim. With Silberg, he revisited the primal scene at his school after fifty years, trying to make sense of both the event and his response to it.

It’s a remarkably powerful idea, but also an extremely challenging one, poised on the fine line between introspection and self-absorption, where the search for justice and reconciliation can easily collapse into an exercise of guilt. Written like a New York Times feature article, Bullies is unfortunately far too focused on its own process to be able to see a way out of the dilemma.

But the film’s bigger problem is formal. To illustrate his lines, Rosenblatt repeatedly employs clips from old educational documentaries such that there is a short circuit between the individuals he speaks about and the figures on the screen. The long middle section of the film consists of a series of telephone recordings whose content is visualized by extended stop-motion animation of photo cut-outs. The filmmaker generously includes his primary school teacher’s prediction about his film-in-progress: “possibly very tedious to watch.”


[First published in News9]