The magazine produced a diverse and enthralling array of nominees
The New Yorker magazine dominated the short film and documentary Oscar categories this year, receiving one out of three Oscar nominations in those categories. The magazine has been trying to cultivate an audience for sophisticated short films and documentaries for years now with its Screening Room feature and YouTube channel, and while they usually get some nominations, this is the first time you can view a full five nominees (out of 15 total) exclusively on their platforms. Well, depending on your region anyway. But you’ll probably have a more difficult time than not trying to source these movies outside the United States, since people generally only end up seeing them on the festival circuit
And the most festival circuit style film of them all is “Night Ride” or “Night Ride: A Late-Night Tram Heist” if you’d like a less more generic sounding title. The fifteen minute Norwegian film has a fairly cute premise. A short woman impulsively steals a tram when the driver refuses to allow her to wait inside on a freezing cold night while he takes a thirty minute break between routes. So she has to fake being a real tram driver. This is awkward both mechanically, since she doesn’t know how to operate the tram, but also socially, since she also doesn’t know how to deescalate scuffles between passengers.
That was what I liked about Night Ride. But the New Yorker’s marketing copy gives a better hint why the movie got nominated- “Confronting Harassment” is the title of their article, and director Eirik Tveiten has said that he hopes the film will inspire people to find the courage to speak up when they see someone being harmed. It’s a nice sentiment. But at the end of the day this is a story about a person who causes nearly every single problem in the story by stealing a tram. While rowdy guys being jerks on the tram is bad, I would probably expect, or hope, that this is the kind of thing they teach you how to deal with in tram operator school.
That’s very abstract social messaging though, which is about all you can really hope for in the short film category. The New Yorker’s two short documentary nominees are far more direct. “Stranger at the Gate” is a thirty minute piece about former marine Richard (Mac) McKinney, who plotted to destroy a mosque in his Indiana hometown before eventually deciding to join it instead. Technically I spoiled the entire story there, as does the New Yorker if you tried to actually read anything about this documentary on their website ahead of time. This might sound like a bit of an odd idea, given that documentaries aren’t generally structured around plot twists.
Well, Stranger at the Gate is, to the documentary’s detriment. Joshua Seftel makes it clear from the start that McKinney either did something sinister or was clearly thinking about it, and just sort of beats around the bush for awhile about what that might be, while clearly suggesting that whatever it was, McKinney’s PTSD was the real culprit. The film gives short shrift to the fact that McKinney spent several years in the Middle East conditioned to see Muslims as his mortal enemy. Stranger at the Gate has a fundamentally optimistic message: that the United States is a nice, pleasant country where people from all sorts of cultures and faiths can get together in friendship and harmony.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Seftel’s treatment of the mosque’s residents, who all have noticeably less screentime than McKinney. We know that they’re diverse, we know they had their own issues of resentment they appear to have forgiven, and that’s all that really matters. Of course, it’s not really. Forgiveness is a complex and difficult subject, personally and spiritually, and by focusing on the fairly obvious causes of McKinney’s radicalism instead of the considerably more interesting question of why he changed his mind, and what his friends at the mosque thought about his flirtation with domestic terrorism, Seftel does the subject matter short thrift.
“Haulout” uses the mystery element to much better effect, although I’m not sure director Evgenia Arbugaeva did so intentionally. Haulout takes place at a walrus haulout in the Arctic Circle, where marine biologist Maxim Chakilev is waiting for walruses to crowd the beaches so he can…observe walruses crowd the beaches, because that’s what a marine biologist does.
Very little actually happens in Haulout, but the documentary is fascinating for its live depiction of a giant herd of walruses just overwhelming the little island and being very loud. The arrival of the walruses is so comically abrupt and alien that at times Haulout even has the feel of a horror movie, except that Maxim Chakilev is so obviously unconcerned by the tens of thousands of walruses who could probably kill him at any time if they wanted to. At times he just angrily talks to them like they’re dogs to keep them from encroaching too much on his modest little shack.
Haulout is a lot of fun to watch. But the socially conscious element that got the movie an Academy Award nomination is the text at the end noting that global warming has forced too many walruses onto land, causing all this overcrowding. While this does make sense for scientific reasons, on a visceral level, it’s a little difficult to be overly concerned about the long-term survival of walruses when for most of Haulout’s runtime, there are simply far too many walruses. Still, it’s easy to see why Haulout won a nomination for the New Yorker over “Nuisance Bear” which likewise undermines any possible climate change narrative by having its titular polar bear being…well…a nuisance.
As for the New Yorker’s final two nominees, the animated films The Flying Sailor and Ice Merchants, they’re both just really great films. The Flying Sailor is brief and existentialist in its depiction of an olde tyme sailor hurtling to and from the heavens in the wake of a massive explosion, while the Ice Merchants is somewhat less brief but often about as existentialist in its depiction of a father and son in a daily grind to deliver ice from their mountainside home to the town down below…by skydiving. At just seven and fourteen minutes, both are well worth your time.