Oscar-nominated documentary shorts capture sick ironies of our era

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      In English, French, German, and Hindi, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      There’s always controversy around the Academy Award documentary nominations, mostly regarding what got left out. This year, the long-form omission of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was the most glaring, since the late Fred Rogers is exactly the kind of figure our fractured society is sorely lacking today.

      That absence carried over to the short-docs category, which runs to a whopping 146 minutes, because almost every crisis addressed here is the direct result of having zero moral leadership where it counts.

      The sick ironies of our era come punching through the shortest entry, “A Night at the Garden”, P.O.V. veteran Marshall Curry’s mere seven minutes of found footage (with sound) documenting the February night in 1939 when 20,000 “America First” types crowded into Madison Square Garden to pledge allegiance to the flag, yell “Heil Hitler,” and laugh at a visiting German’s racist jokes. Goebbels and company never really expected the U.S. to embrace Nazism; they were pulling a Putin by throwing the country’s segregationist history back on itself, hoping to keep low-information voters neutralized as they prepared to unleash a worldwide Holocaust.

      The consequences of colonial supremacy are writ both large and small in the half-hour “LIFEBOAT”, named not after Hitchcock’s WWII effort but for the collective efforts of a German NGO, called Sea-Watch, that seeks out refugees stranded in international waters. Oregonian Sky Fitzgerald seeks out individual stories of Africans and others rescued from brutal people smugglers, but spends the most time with Capt. Jon Castle, a Channel Islander who previously skippered the Rainbow Warrior.

      “With just a few cycles of history, we could be these people,” asserts Castle, felled by cancer after filming was done. That’s the fate of all patients profiled in “End Game”, a surprisingly goodhearted 40-minute look at cutting-edge hospice care in San Francisco. It’s a Frederick Wiseman–style, fly-on-the-sterilized-wall study from filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who also brought us The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk.

      The weakest of the batch is “Black Sheep”, a British doc that desperately wants to be a scripted feature. Ed Perkins’s half-hour effort consists mostly of a face-front interview with Cornelius Walker, whose family abruptly moved him, as a teenager, from possible danger in multicultural London to certain disaster in industrially blighted Brexit territory. The parents have no opportunity here to explain their faulty thinking; the balance of time is consumed with stylized re-creations of the lad’s self-abnegating attempts to fit in with hopelessly violent racists.

      Elsewhere, a potentially downbeat tale is given multiple lifts in the cleverly titled “Period. End of Sentence.” Iranian-American Rayka Zehtabchi got an L.A. film class to pitch in on a machine with which women in rural northern India could make and distribute their own menstrual pads—a subject that still brings shame and nervous laughter to people who’ve had thousands of years to adjust to what roughly 53 percent of the population goes through every month. The fact that something this basic requires outside intervention in 2019 is a sure sign that we have a severe worldwide shortage of Rogers—whether Mr. or Ms.

      A Night at The Garden