Oscars 2016 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short-Subject

Every year before the Oscars I break down each of the 24 categories. I do this to familiarize everyone with the category, how it typically goes, voting-wise, historically and also as a precursor to my picks article, allowing me to get most of the heavy lifting out of the way beforehand.

What I do is go over each category’s history, give you all the previous winners and nominees, then list the current year’s nominees. And then I’ll go over how each of the guilds (if there is a corresponding guild) have voted, how that corresponds to the Oscars (some guilds mean a lot to how a category will play out. Others mean nothing). It’s basically everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision when you make your picks on Oscar night. And then I also rank the nominees at the end in terms of where I see them in terms of their likelihood to win. So you know what the general favorites are.

We begin with Best Documentary Short. AKA “What issue will the white people make themselves feel good about pretending to solve this year?”

Year Best Documentary (Short Subject) Winners
1941 Churchill’s Island
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 December 7th
1944 With the Marines at Tarawa
1945 Hitler Lives
1946 Seeds of Destiny
1947 First Steps
1948 Toward Independence
1949 (tie) A Chance to Live

So Much for So Little

1950 Why Korea?
1951 Benjy
1952 Neighbours
1953 The Alaskan Eskimo
1954 Thursday’s Children
1955 Men against the Arctic
1956 The True Story of the Civil War
1957 No Award Given.
1958 Ama Girls
1959 Glass
1960 Giuseppina
1961 Project Hope
1962 Dylan Thomas
1963 Chagall
1964 Nine from Little Rock
1965 To Be Alive!
1966 A Year Toward Tomorrow
1967 The Redwoods
1968 Why Man Creates
1969 Czechoslovakia 1968
1970 Interviews with My Lai Veterans
1971 Sentinals of Silence
1972 This Tiny World
1973 Princeton: A Search for Answers
1974 Don’t
1975 The End of the Game
1976 Number Our days
1977 Gravity Is My Enemy
1978 The Flight of the Gossamer Condor
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
1980 Karl Hess: Toward Liberty
1981 Close Harmony
1982 If You Love This Planet
1983 Flamenco at 5:15
1984 The Stone Carvers
1985 Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements
1986 Women – for America, for the World
1987 Young at Heart
1988 You Don’t Have to Die
1989 The Johnstown Flood
1990 Days of Waiting
1991 Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment
1992 Educating Peter
1993 Defending Our Lives
1994 A Time for Justice
1995 One Survivor Remembers
1996 Breathing Lesosns: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien
1997 A Story of Healing
1998 The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years
1999 King Gimp
2000 Big Mama
2001 Thoth
2002 Twin Towers
2003 Chernobyl Heart
2004 Mighty Times: The Children’s March
2005 A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
2006 The Blood of Yingzhou District
2007 Freeheld
2008 Smile Pinki
2009 Music by Prudence
2010 Strangers No More
2011 Saving Face
2012 Inocente
2013 The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life
2014 Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
2015 A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

The great thing about this category is that they’re very open and obvious about what they go for. Kind of like Best Live-Action Short, but with a smaller margin of random decisions. This one is one where, with enough experience, you can immediately spot the one that’s for them.

Here are the last bunch of winners:

  • 2015 — Honor killing in the Middle East.
  • 2014 — Hotline for veterans having PTSD problems.
  • 2013 — Holocaust survivor plays music every day and used music to overcome the horrors she’s encountered in her life
  • 2012 — Homeless girl paints in order to overcome her situation and surroundings.
  • 2011 — Doctor who performs surgeries on Iranian women who have had acid thrown in their faces
  • 2010 — School in Israel has kids from 30 different countries and all different backgrounds coming together to learn
  • 2009 — A girl with a deformity overcomes the prejudice against people with her condition (in her country, people with her deformity are usually left for dead or cast aside) to make music
  • 2008 — A little girl in India is given surgery to fix a cleft palate.
  • 2007 — A dying police officer wants her death benefits to go to her partner, but the state won’t allow it because they don’t consider same-sex relationships to be legitimate
  • 2006 — Children in China lost their parents to AIDS

This year, they made it pretty easy. Three of the nominees are about Aleppo. Plus one Holocaust/uplifting one and one “end of life” one.

Best Documentary Short

4.1 Miles


Joe’s Violin

Watani: My Homeland

The White Helmets

4.1 Miles is about a coast guard captain on a remote Greek island who is charged with the saving thousands of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea during the European migrant crisis. Here’s the doc itself.

Extremis — Witness the wrenching emotions that accompany end-of-life decisions as doctors, patients and families in a hospital ICU face harrowing choices. Have a Netflix account (or someone else’s password)? Watch the film there.

Joe’s Violin — A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor’s violin donation during an instrument drive changes the life of a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx.

Watani: My Homeland is the story of one family’s fight and struggle to survive the Syrian Civil War. Having lost her husband, the mother makes the heart achingly painful decision to leave her homeland, in search of safety and a brighter future for her children. Filmed over three years, the film chronicles the family’s journey from the front-line in Aleppo, to a little town in Germany. Escaping the chaos and terror of their war torn homeland becomes a catalyst for a different kind of struggle; the struggle to understand your past and accept your present, to adapt to a new life, to hold on to hope, and the idea of belonging to a homeland.

This is the only one not readily available to watch.

The White Helmets — As daily airstrikes pound civilian targets in Syria, a group of indomitable first responders risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble. Netflix? Watch it there.

– – – – –

You pretty much just need to guess how you guess how you think it’s gonna go, based on their previous choices. Generally it’s not that hard to figure out.


5. 4.1 Miles — I feel like, of the three Aleppo documentaries, this is the slightest. It’s got harrowing footage, but that’s just it. Footage. There’s no story here for them to grasp onto. It’s just a general “refugee” thing. And with other choices, I think this is the one that falls by the wayside, ultimately.

4. Joe’s Violin — It’s a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor giving a violin to an inner-city black child. You’d think they’d be all over this. But there’s really not a whole lot there. It sounds better on paper than it is in person. Don’t think they’re gonna go for this, ultimately. They’ve ignored these kinds of docs the last few years, by and large. They typically only go here when there’s not a “major issue” doc to pick instead. And there’s clearly one of those this year.

3. Extremis — This theoretically could jump up and win. End of life decisions can be difficult. We’ll see. I’m gonna give it a back seat to Aleppo for now, but put it firmly in the “can happen” territory. It’s a decent documentary. I wasn’t particularly moved. I just watched people deal with loved ones probably never waking up and how they respond to that. It’s fine. Maybe it wins. I’m thinking probably not. This was like Body Team 12 last year. It was fine, but it didn’t do much for me, and ultimately they went for the more emotional choice.

2. Watani: My Homeland — I haven’t seen it, so I can’t gauge for sure until I do. I have a feeling they’re gonna go for Aleppo, and this has a story they can get behind. So this could win. I’ll know more when I see it. But let’s call this second choice at the moment.

1. The White Helmets — I can’t see this not winning. It’s already been picked up as a feature, it’s on Netflix, which means people will have seen it and probably heard of it, and it’s especially got word of mouth now that the people involved with it can’t attend the ceremony because of the Muslim ban. I’m thinking this might be a lock. You can’t ever say that for sure, but I’m feeling as good about this as a favorite as I have about anything in this category the past handful of years.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Makeup & Hairstyling.


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