Far outpacing its animated and live-action brethren, this year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts offer wrenching views on death, dislocation, hardship, and loss. Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry's Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 gets poignantly up close and personal at the Veterans Crisis Line, which receives 22,000 calls a month from military veterans. Despair of a different sort is scrutinized by White Earth, which focuses on the North Dakota oil boom's impact on three different kids/families. In nineteen minutes, J. Christian Jensen conveys a wide-ranging, mournful sense of how economic and industrial forces shape ordinary lives — a topic also dealt with by The Reaper, a haunting character study of a Mexican slaughterhouse worker coping with a job that requires him, day after long day, to murder to support his clan.
An even more personal look at mortality comes in Joanna, director Aneta Kopacz's fragmented nonfiction film about a Polish mother dying of breast cancer. Though an affected non-chronological style sometimes stymies full engagement with its material, Kopacz's short, especially in a late shot of the woman's son tearfully processing the news that his mother will die, packs an almost unbearable wallop. Still, for pure emotional devastation, nothing matches Our Curse, Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki's autobiographical documentary about their early days caring for their baby Leo, who was born with a rare and incurable condition known as Ondine's curse, which could cause him to stop breathing while sleeping and required that he be attached to a ventilator. They come away with an unforgettable portrait of unwavering, indestructible parental love.