The less big-name awards on the upcoming Oscar lists provide some of the most interesting topics.
Among the best documentary shorts is Knife Skills by Thomas Lennon. The film profiles Edwins, a culinary school and French restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights. Students are recruited from the ranks of some of the 650,000 convicts released every year in the United States.
The program isn’t for everyone—the graduation rate of one class was about 35 out of 120. The equation that hard work builds self-esteem always has some variables in it. Lennon is honest about the problems that impede the aspiring cooks and servers, even while working in a commercial-grade style of filmmaking. Despite the knife in the title, the short has little cutting edge.
Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 gives us the privilege of meeting Los Angeles artist Mindy Alper, whose ink drawings and papier-mâché sculptures astonish, even more so when we hear her terrible struggle with a series of mental illnesses.
The one to beat at the Oscars is Netflix’s Heroin(e), a knockout short funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s set in the town of Huntington, W.V., a post-industrial port on the Ohio River, where the overdose rate is 10 times what it is in the rest of America. It profiles three people fighting against the crisis, all women: Necia Freeman, a volunteer bringing food to the street prostitutes trying to earn money for junk; Judge Patricia Keller, whose drug court is as much Narcotics Anonymous meeting as place for punishment; and Jan Rader, a compassionate fire chief who makes history in her state.
Director and co-producer Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a local, was extended a great deal of trust. But she has far too many good interviews here to write off this short film as the work of a lucky observer who was in the right place at the right time.