This year's Oscar-nominated documentary short films immerse us in the worlds of deaf teens on the cusp of adulthood, the homeless epidemic and a family displaced by war but striving for a brighter future. We meet one of the greatest, groundbreaking, champion athletes of whom most of us had never heard. And we follow a filmmaker's uncomfortable journey into a bullying incident in his past.
“Audible”: The immersive film drops the audience into the world of a reigning football-champion high school: Maryland School for the Deaf. Sports form the backdrop, but it's all about the accepting, supportive community there.
"There's still gonna be drama and conflict; it's high school," director Matt Ogens says. But there's remarkable inclusiveness among the kids. "I think it's because they share this bond — Black, white, gay, straight — they all have [deafness] in common, no matter what. Being Deaf is a culture, it's a community.
"One of the most surprising things was how much like normal American teens they are. You see the house party, dancing in the streets, on the date — the only difference is the sign language."
The filmmaker mostly eschews external context; there's no narration; the sound design in most scenes reflects the subjects' world: "I wanted to make this an audio-visual immersive experience. You hear Amaree and Jalen (now Jazzy) say 'I feel that vibration,' and you can, too."
“Lead Me Home”: Directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk get personal with wildly different people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle bound by one thing: homelessness.
"There are 600,000 Americans sleeping on the streets every night," Shenk says. "The individual stories are getting lost. We wanted to personalize it, get really close with people and show it's no single story."
Kos adds, "We're bombarded by so much vitriol and dialogue on this issue — we wanted to create an experience that would connect on a basic level, that was emotional and immersive, rather than adding to the vitriol."
For viewers interested in following the subjects' stories beyond the film, the directors say they post updates on them at leadmehomefilm.com.
“The Queen of Basketball” — Director Ben Proudfoot wasn't a basketball fan when a colleague suggested he Google "Lusia Harris."
"I found a strange combination of superlative accomplishments and very little information. This is a singular person. And it was surprisingly easy to get a hold of Ms. Harris," he said of the dominant force behind three national championships, who was drafted to the NBA.
Harris, who died early this year, narrates her own story with "perfect accuracy" (says Proudfoot) while charming the viewer with her straight talk and disarming laugh: "Part of what she was laughing at was how surprised I was by all the twists and turns in the story."
Harris passed on the once-in-forever opportunity to try to make an NBA squad, but "I didn't see any regret. She said she wanted to shoot the ball like them and have a family, and she did both things," says Proudfoot. "We expect someone like her to be regretful: 'If I had done that, I would have won the game.' She won the game. She was just playing a different game."
“Three Songs for Benazir”: A charming, energetic young man, soon to be a father, playfully ad-libs songs for his wife and looks to provide for his family. But this is Afghanistan, during the recent years of extraordinary turmoil and only equally fraught options. Directors Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei stay out of the way in this fly-on-the-wall documentary.
Gulistan Mirzaei says, "When I went to the refugee camp 12 years ago to bring food to people, I met Shaista. He was singing and laughing and funny and smart and full of hopes and dreams. We were both displaced by the war in Afghanistan. After three years of friendship, I asked if I could film him and Benazir."
Elizabeth Mirzaei says, "It touches on all these different issues — the ongoing war and instability, the drug economy, the state of the national army and what choices you have as a young man. But we wanted to focus it on this love story.
"It wasn't a big-picture story of the war; it was Shaista and his story we were drawn to."
“When We Were Bullies”: Sparked by an amazing coincidence, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt decided not only to confront an ugly group bullying incident in which he was involved as a child, but find everyone involved to get their perspectives.
"Many of us, including myself, have been on both sides of [bullying]. This was an instance where I was part of the group, complicit," says Rosenblatt of the event that had haunted him for decades. Yet, he says, "If we hadn't been caught, I might not have remembered it. It wasn't something so out of the ordinary."
A key interviewee questions whether it's worth revisiting something that happened so long ago. Reminded of this question, Rosenblatt says that years ago, when he described his previous documentary about "boyhood cruelty and male socialization, 'The Smell of Burning Ants,'" to someone, she said, "You're opening up wounds to let the poisons out."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.