Five Oscar-nominated short documentaries offer a moving, first-hand look at humanity in peril

The White Helmets, a volunteer group of first responders in Syria, are among the subjects of one short documentary nominated for an Oscar award.
The White Helmets, a volunteer group of first responders in Syria, are among the subjects of one short documentary nominated for an Oscar award.
Image: Reuters/Sultan Kitaz
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As you watch the Academy Awards ceremony this weekend, your loyalties may be torn between the escapism of La La Land and the social commentary of artful films like Moonlight or Hidden Figures. The short documentary category, however, is free of such tension. The masterful films nominated for this Oscar are squarely focused on the darker reality of our times and themes relevant to today’s political climate.

Three of the five nominated films center on Syria’s civil war and its refugees, and each uses fly-on-the-wall storytelling to transport the viewer into a gripping story. In one, a Greek coast guard captain determinedly rescues migrants adrift on the Aegean Sea. Another is filmed on the front lines of the conflict in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where regular civilians have become volunteer first responders. A third follows a trauma-stricken family from that city to a foreign country.

Here’s a look at the nominees, and some information about how to stream them, which is possible for all but one.

4.1 Miles

The Greek island of Lesbos is 4.1 miles off the Turkish coast, seemingly within reach for Syrian refugees in Turkey looking for an entry to Europe. But the crossing to Lesbos can be deadly and passengers are often left stranded in crowded, flimsy inflatable boats, sometimes without life jackets. Nevertheless, thousands were arriving in the Greek islands daily in 2015 and 2016.

In 4.1. Miles, the director’s camera, unaccompanied by narration, takes the audience onboard a single coast guard boat in Lesbos, where the steadfast captain, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, works in the heart of a nightmare. In the course of a single day, the film follows his tiny crew’s response to emergency calls in rough waters where they find terrified, freezing families, many with small children, waiting for rescue. In one scene, he orders the director to put down her camera and hold a baby, and she does. In another, he pulls a woman holding two small children into safety in his boat. The children aren’t breathing, and require immediate CPR.

The film was directed by Daphne Matziaraki, a recent UC Berkeley School of Journalism graduate, who wrote of making the film: “I was struck by the fine lines that separate us, the moments when our paths cross fleetingly, and we look at one another for the first time and sometimes for the last.”

How to watch: 4.1 Miles was produced by The New York Times’s Opinion section and is available to watch on the site for free.

The White Helmets

Since 2012, thousands of unarmed civilians have joined the Syrian civil defence group, known as the White Helmets. Volunteers rush to the sites of bombings and explosions in rebel-controlled areas to look for civilians who may still be alive. They are thought to have saved an estimated 70,000 lives over the past four years.

Although we’ve seen clips of the White Helmets’ work on the evening news—even a few days ago, a video emerged of them rescuing a five-year-old girl under a collapsed building—this documentary tells a fuller story of the conditions they face in Aleppo, where bombed targets are often “double-tapped,” or struck for a second time while search crews look for survivors.

Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets, and Khaled Khatib, a cinematographer who worked with the group, will be at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, though it briefly appeared that President Trump’s executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries was going to make that trip impossible.

How to watch: Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, The White Helmets is now available on Netflix.

Watani: My Homeland

This 40-minute film is made from footage gathered in the three years that filmmakers Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis spent with a Syrian family in a once middle class Aleppo neighbourhood turned war zone. In that time, Hala Kamil and her four children move to a Goslar, a small town in Germany, without Kamil’s husband. A former electrical engineer, he had become a fighter for the Free Syrian Army, but was abducted by ISIL, and was never seen again.

Before life changed for the couple, they would watch the Oscars on television. Now Kamil will be in the US to attend the event —again, only after Trump’s travel ban was blocked by US courts. “To think that over three years after I last saw my husband, I’ll be traveling to that same ceremony we watched together, brings tears to my eye,” Kamil said in a statement.

How to watch: To find Watani at a local theatre, look for information on its website.

Joe’s Violin

Joseph Feingold, the “Joe” in the title of this short doc, is a 91-year-old survivor of the Holocaust who was born in Warsaw and now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As this 24-minute film opens, he has decided to donate his beloved violin, which he bought in a displaced person’s camp during World War II, to a school in the Bronx, in the country’s poorest congressional district. Fiengold, a retired architect, says playing the violin kept him sane in the camp as he waited to be moved to the US.

At the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, he meets the recipient of his gift, 12-year-old Brianna Perez, who plays him a tune Feingold’s mother had referenced in a letter before she died at Treblinka.

How to watch: Directed by Kahane Cooperman, a former producer for the Daily Show, Joe’s Violin is on YouTube.


In medical terms, patients “in extremis” have reached the point of death, something modern Western culture hasn’t handled with much grace. In this case, the end has come in an intensive care unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. The protagonist is Jessica Zitter, M.D., who talks to the partners and families of her terminally ill patients about the practical reasons for withdrawing medical care. In emotionally intense scenes, the film raises questions about what science or faith can or should do, and the quandaries doctors and grieving families face when further medical interventions appear futile.

How to watch: Extremis, directed by Dan Krauss, is available on Netflix.