Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award-nominated documentary short subjects; ‘Korla’

A family of Syrian refugees in Watani My Homeland

If you’re interested in seeing this year’s Academy Award-nominated short documentaries on the big screen, you’ll need to go a little further afield than usual. The nominees screen at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater beginning Saturday, Feb. 18, and no East Bay play dates are scheduled. (The short live-action and animated films are playing at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas, however, and you can read my review from last week.)

I’m going to guess that local favorite Extremis is least likely to take the Oscar home on Feb. 26. The second documentary recently shot at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, Extremis focuses on the facility’s Intensive Care Unit and the difficult ethical decisions staff confront there on a daily basis. Though excellent, the film is probably too raw a gut-punch for your average mortality-conscious Academy voter, and end-of-life documentaries haven’t fared well in the past — I considered Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Ward a lock in 2014, and… well, it wasn’t.

In sharp contrast, Joe’s Violin is the sort of feel-good documentary the Academy has taken a shine to in recent years. The story of a Holocaust survivor who donates his beloved violin (purchased in a displaced person’s camp in 1947) to the (deep breath) Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls Charter School, the film benefits from a) its protagonist still being alive and b) the recipient of the violin being a delightfully bubbly 13-year-old. As charming as it is, Joe’s Violin doesn’t deserve to win, but probably will.

The final three films each deal with different aspects of the still unfolding Middle Eastern disaster unleashed by George W. Bush post- 9/11. The least of the trio is The White Helmets, an examination of the titular Syrian rescue organization of the same name. Hagiographic in tone, the film doesn’t dare touch on the controversies surrounding the Helmets, and, despite some riveting rescue scenes, just didn’t do a lot for me.


Far more effective was 4.1 Miles, which should be receiving the accolades and attention being heaped upon Best Documentary Feature nominee Fire at Sea. Shot on and around the Greek island of Lesbos, a transit point for more than half a million refugees since the turn of the century, the film is direct, immediate, and powerful. Fire at Sea may be high art but 4.1 Miles is the film refugee advocates will want people to see.

Finally, Watani My Homeland is a slow burner that really pulled me in. Shot in Aleppo and Germany over the course of three years, the film details the journey of a Free Syrian Army commander’s family from their devastated homeland to a new life in Germany. At 40 minutes, the film allows us to get to know the family, who don’t fulfill anyone’s stereotypes of ‘typical refugees’. It would be a well-deserved winner (as would 4.1 Miles), but I’m still putting my metaphorical money on Joe’s Violin.

‘Korla’ documentary, about TV personality Korla Pandit, airs on PBS

Early television star Korla Pandit, star of Berkeleyan John Turner’s TV documentary Korla which will air on PBS

If you’re much under 70 (or haven’t been involved in the exotica or lounge scenes) the name Korla Pandit probably won’t mean anything to you, but there was a time when — at least in Southern California — he was as popular with housewives as Liberace. This unique early television personality (whose fame rested on his ability as an African-American to pass as an ‘exotic’ Indian) gets a worthy treatment in Berkeley resident John Turner’s television documentary Korla, which airs on PBS on February 22, 25 and 26. Highly recommended!

Correction: John Turner’s name was originally given incorrectly as ‘Wood.’