This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts — which are being shown at Landmark’s West End Cinema and the Old Greenbelt Theatre beginning Friday in two separate programs — fall, for the most part, into two tidy categories: the issue-oriented and the personal. Tickets for each program, which are tailored to the two distinct tastes, are sold separately.
In the issue-oriented program, you’ll find a twofer of films that, coincidentally, grapple with the theme of rehabilitation: “Heroin(e)” is a grim yet inspirational look at efforts to confront the epidemic of drug addiction in Huntington, W. Va., by several women, including the town’s first female fire chief, Jan Rader. (The film is also available via Netflix streaming.) It’s being paired with “Knife Skills,” which profiles a Cleveland-based program that teaches culinary skills to former prisoners at a French restaurant doubling as a training facility. The restaurant’s name — Edwins — stands for “education wins.”
Both movies offer a sense of hope without sugarcoating the very real challenges faced by their subjects.
The second documentary shorts program offers a very different flavor of moviemaking. Two of the films are distinctly intimate — “Edith and Eddie” and “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” — while a third straddles the line between the personal and the political.
“Edith and Eddie” is both a heart-warmer and a heartbreaker, focusing on the elderly Washington-area couple of the title: 96-year-old Edith Hill and 95-year-old Eddie Harrison, of Alexandria. Married in their 90s, they are shown fighting to remain together, despite efforts by one of Edith’s daughters to separate them. “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam” is a profile of Mindy Alper, an outsider artist in Southern California who has struggled with depression, anxiety and other challenges. The title comes from Alper herself, who professes to love nothing better than sitting in her car in bumper-to-bumper road congestion— one of the few situations, besides artmaking, in which she feels completely at peace.
Rounding out this trio of films is “Traffic Stop.” In 2015, Breaion King, a 26-year-old black schoolteacher, was pulled over for a minor moving violation in Austin, Texas. The shocking dash-cam footage of the stop, in which she was roughly treated and ultimately arrested, takes up much of the film. But “Traffic Stop” is also a close-up portrait of King, who brings a much needed humanity to the disturbing viral videos we’ve gotten used to seeing online. (The cable network HBO, which produced “Traffic Stop,” will begin showing the film Monday, with sneak peeks available, via HBO Go, HBO Now and HBO on Demand, on Friday.)
Which film will win? I’m betting on “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405.” Featuring interviews with Alper’s mother, doctor, art dealer and others, it’s an utterly fascinating and original study in survival and, as Alper’s art teacher puts it, the “redemptive capacity” of the creative impulse.