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  • Brandon MacMurray

Documentary Short Shortlist Predictions for the 96th Academy Awards

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



It's that time of year! Shortlists will be announced for the shorts categories on December 21st and we are here to bring you our predictions, starting with documentary shorts. This year 114 documentary shorts qualified to be considered. Pedro, Joshua and I (Brandon) have watched as many as we could get our hands on (around 103/114 submissions). Our process for the ranking? Each of us made a list where we ranked what we thought would get nominated 1 through 15. A first place vote received 15 points, second 14 points and kept that trend all the way down to a 15th place vote getting 1 point. Keep in mind, although we do like a lot of the shorts on this list, it is a list of what we think will get in, not what our favourites of the year were. Without further ado, here is our predictions of our 15 to make the shortlist (plus one extra because 15th place was a tie). Also check out some special mentions and full analysis at the bottom:


1) Between Earth & Sky, dir. Andrew Nadkarni



Securing all three of our first place votes, Between Earth & Sky has become a frontrunner in the category and with good reason. It has won countless awards throughout the festival season including it's qualifying award at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (a festival where at least one of two qualifying winners has gone on to shortlist for four years straight). Between Earth & Sky has been very widely beloved, and made pretty much every list there is to make: Best Short Documentary at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards, DOC NYC, IDA shortlist and Cinema Eye Honours Outstanding Non-Fiction Short.




2) The Last Repair Shop, dirs. Ben Proudfoot, Kris Bowers



Ben Proudfoot is no stranger to the documentary shorts category. The last time Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers teamed up for a documentary short (A Concerto is a Conversation) it went on to be nominated in this category. A year later Ben took home the Oscar for his documentary short The Queen of Basketball. We have little doubt that The Last Repair Shop will bring him back into the shortlist this year. The Last Repair Shop has been nominated in the Best Short category for the Critics Choice Documentary Award and also made the DOC NYC shortlist. It also has the backing of both Searchlight and LA Times.



3) Nai Nai and Wai Po (Grandma & Grandma) dir. Sean Wang



Has there ever been a documentary short as adorable as this one? This is a documentary short that seems impossible to hate. Every person I have talked to who has seen this has adored the two titular grandmas, who will charm your socks off and make you laugh. It is a beautiful short about recording memory and spending the time left with the ones we love so much. Disney has picked it up and will distribute it, which we think will give it a big push towards the shortlist and a possible nomination. This short is also nominated for Best Short Film at the IDA awards.



4) The Takeover dir. Anders Hammer



Anders Hammer is another familiar name in the documentary shorts category. His documentary short Do Not Split was nominated at the 93rd Academy Awards. This year he is back with two contenders The Takeover filmed during the rapid takeover of Afganistan by the Taliban and When It Started to Burn, a film shot one year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, about civilians contribution to resistance. The three of us were split 2-1 on which of his documentaries would make the shortlist. Ultimately, not having seen When It Started to Burn yet and with The Takeover making the DOC NYC shortlist, we settled on it.



5) A Tattoo On My Brain, dirs. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner



A Tattoo on my Brain, is based off Neurologist Dan Gibbs book of the same name. He is an expert on Alzheimer’s who finds out he has the disease himself. The short follows him as he works to study it and slow its progression. As we will discuss in our full analysis below, Paramount over the last couple of years has had one of the highest success rates of getting shorts on the documentary shorts shortlist. Of their slate of five shorts this year, this is may be the most highly acclaimed of them all. Most notably, it is the only one of the five to make the DOC NYC list (last year all 3 Paramount, DOC NYC shortlisted shorts made it to the Oscars shortlist).


Watch now on Paramount+


6) Camp Courage, dir. Max Lowe


Almost certain to be Netflix’s main contender in the Documentary Short category, Camp Courage shows a young girl displaced by the ongoing war in Ukraine travels with her grandmother to a week-long summer camp in the Austrian Alps where they meet other refugee families affected by the ongoing war with Russia. The timeliness of the Ukrainian film from director Max Lowe, combined with the campaign power of its distributor is sure to net Camp Courage a spot on the shortlist. Camp Courage also secured a spot on the DOC NYC Shortlist of the best documentary short films of the year.


Watch now on Netflix

7) Neighbour Abdi, dir Douwe Dijkstra



This film by director Douwe Dijkstra playfully reconstructs Somali-born Abdi’s life in a special effects studio to go on an investigative journey through a violent past. It qualified for the Oscars three times over by winning awards at three qualifying festivals (PÖFF Shorts, Winterthur International Short Film Festival and Ann Arbor Film Festival), and its wildly successful festival run also included prizes at Rotterdam, Uppsala, and many other festivals. Neighbour Abdi has also earned many year-end accolades, including a nomination from the International Documentary Association (IDA), as well as nominations at AFI Fest, and Cinema Eye Honours.


8) The Barber of Little Rock, dirs. John Hoffman, Christine Turner



The Barber of Little Rock, by directors John Hoffman and Christine Turner explores the widening racial wealth gap through a non-profit community bank and how it helps the local community combat the effects of generational poverty and structural racism by fostering economic progress for underserved residents. The Barber of Little Rock will be distributed by The New Yorker, was a Critics’ Choice nominee for best documentary short film and was one of 15 doc shorts selected for DOC NYC’s Shortlist. The Barber of Little Rock also has some big-name champions campaigning for it, including Executive Producers Liz Garbus and Dwayne Wade.

9) Nina & Irena, dir. Daniel Lombroso


Voters are sure to be moved by the story of Nina & Irena, a New Yorker distributed short. On her 90th birthday a woman tells her grandson for the first time about the disappearance of her sister during the Holocaust. This is the first time that investigative journalist Daniel Lombroso turns his camera on his family, and the result netted Nina & Irena a place on the DOC NYC Shortlist of the best documentary shorts of the year. Executive Producer Errol Morris, one of the most important names in documentary film, lends his name to the campaign.


10) Last Song from Kabul, dir. Kevin Macdonald



This film comes from Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald (for Best Documentary Feature, One Day in September about the 1972 Munich Olympics). It tells the story of a music school for orphaned girls that was closed after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan as they students try to escape to Portugal to rebuild their lives and to play music once more. Festival audiences have appreciated Last Song from Kabul since its debut at Telluride, it also was selected to play at the DOC NYC festival and is now steaming on Paramount+, where easy access makes it available to all voters. Executive Producer Sheila Nevins, one of the biggest names in documentary films, counts Last Song from Kabul as one of four shots in the category this year.


Watch now on Paramount +


11) Deciding Vote, dirs. Robert J. Lyons, Jeremy Workman



With Roe vs. Wade being struck down by the Supreme Court last year, a woman's right to abortion has become a hot topic not only at the polls but in a couple of documentary shorts this year. Deciding Vote which is backed by The New Yorker (a prolific distributor in this category) seems to be the likeliest of these documentary shorts to make it in. This short uses the kind of archival footage that the academy loves to vote for and tells a political story of a man who sacrifices his career to make a choice he feels is right, a move not often seen in politics today. Deciding Vote also appeared on the DOC NYC shortlist.




12) Puffling, dir. Jessica Bishopp


Puffling is the fourth and final short from the New Yorker we have in our predictions. Last year The New Yorker got two documentary shorts on to the shortlist that are not so different from this one. Last years' Nuisance Bear and Haulout were both nature docs centred around human disruption of animals. Puffling follows a similar archetype as these but is so much more. It expands outside the following of the animals and introduces humans into the picture, creating a wonderful metaphor to give it a more personal touch. Based on history of last years results, we think the Academy is going to love this one. Like many others on this list Puffling was included on this years DOC NYC shortlist.




13) How We Get Free, dirs Geeta Gandbhir, Samantha M. Knowles



Directors Geeta Gandbhir and Samantha M. Knowles explore a topic that could not be timelier, as they follow the tenacious Elisabeth Epps while she works to abolish cash bail in Colorado and put an end to the criminalization of poverty. How We Get Free played at the important Hot Docs festival. After years of grassroots activism, Epps has been called to run for State Representative, and the topic of the documentary has only become more pressing since. How We Get Free has the distribution power of HBO behind it, and secured a place on the influential IDA Shortlist for best documentary short film.


Watch now on HBO Max


14) The ABCs of Book Banning, dir. Sheila Nevins



The ABCs of Book Banning is the third and final documentary short on this list distributed by Paramount, an absolute powerhouse in recent years on getting their shorts onto the shortlist. It is directed by the iconic Sheila Nevins who runs MTV Documentary Films and was previous CEO of HBO Documentary programming. She has overseen production of hundreds of documentaries that have gone on to win dozens of Emmys and Academy Awards. The ABCs of Book Banning is nominated for a Critics Choice Documentary Award.


Watch now on Paramount +


Tied 15) Relighting Candles: The Tim Sullivan Story, dirs. Zeberiah Newman, Michiel Thomas



Relighting Candles: The Tim Sullivan Story is one of two documentary shorts Zeberiah Newman has qualified this year (the other being Unexpected). This one is directed alongside Michiel Thomas and one we think has a pretty good chance at getting in. Relighting Candles was featured this year in the IDA FallDocs Screening Series. The fact that Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone are executive producers makes up for the lack of a big distributor being attached to the short (which is very historically important in this category). We also think that this touching story taking place in West Hollywood will hit home with many Academy voters.


Tied 15) Wings of Dust, dir. Giorgio Ghiotto


Wings of Dust may seem like a bit of a longshot for the shortlist given it doesn't have distribution at the moment, but we see it as a bit of a dark horse. When we saw this one during our Student Academy Awards series we could not believe it was a student film. Giorgio Ghiotto directed this short as if he was a seasoned director doing this for years. The short follows many relevant and important issues like the harms of mining, having clean drinking water and the silencing of journalists. This may be wishful thinking but we think if the Academy does their homework and watches this, it has a serious chance on making it onto the shortlist.



Others Receiving Votes/Hard Omissions


Away, dir. Ruslan Fedotov and Note of Defiance, dir. Brian Henderson

If there is one downfall of our predictions, it is that there should probably be a second Ukrainian-Russia war themed short outside of Camp Courage. As a group we were split on whether it would be New York Times' Away or Amazon's Note of Defiance. Both are more than worthy contenders and could very well end up on the shortlist.


The Noble Guardian, dir. Anna Coren and Ayenda, dir. Marie Margolius

This year there are four documentary shorts that centre around the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult parts of making our predictions was deciding which of the four to put in, as they are all really deserving in their own way. Ultimately, we went with The Takeover and Last Song From Kabul due to the directors history of nominations and distribution/production by Field of Vision and Paramount. However, Ayenda is distributed by MSNBC/Time Studios and made the DOC NYC list and The Noble Guardian might be my favourite of the four and has been doing screenings and getting their name out there too. I wouldn't be shocked to see either of these take the place of our two picks.


The Dads, dir. Luchina Fisher

The Dads is a well-made short, supported by a well-known executive producer in Dwayne Wade, about an important topic and distributed by Netflix who have done really well in this category. Father's loving their trans children is very important and an admirable topic to make a documentary short about. In theory, it should be in, but the majority of us felt the short was a little too surface level on the topic and at 11 minutes long left us very underwhemed with a feeling of: That's it?


Oasis, dir. Justine Martin

This was personally, a really hard one to omit from our list, and one I am rooting for despite it not being listed above. We have been high on Oasis' chances since we saw it and distribution by New York Times is huge and should help. Unfortunately, It barely didn't have enough points to make our final predictions.


Under G-d, dir. Paula Eiselt

As mentioned above we went with Deciding Vote as our pick of a documentary short about abortion issues. However, this PBS POV shorts supported documentary is equally worthy and takes a really unique look at the fight for women's rights.


Breaking Silence, dirs. Amy Bench, Annie Silverstein

This portrait of a deaf activist and his daughter and their experience with the criminal justice system was really solid and important. It is another PBS POV short that we wish could have found space for in our predictions, but we think will fall just short. We won't be at all surprised if it ends up making it though!


Birthing a Nation: The Resistance of Mary Gaffney, dir Nazenet Habtezghi

We may be overlooking this one a bit. If Paramount gets a fourth doc short onto the shortlist we think it'll be this one. It is a very engaging documentary that tells a story that is really undertalked about when it comes to slavery. Director Nazenet Habtezghi is also a co-director of The ABCs of Book banning which we have listed above.


Every Day After, dir. Elisa Gambino

This is a documentary that all three of us really enjoyed when we saw it at Hollyshorts. We loved the cinematography as it brings an important story to light. One of the goals of the creators of the short is to raise awareness around the harmful ways that people with facial differences are portrayed in films. Although it has no major distribution at the moment it is doing a great job of reaching people through screenings and getting it's name out there.


Mighty Penguins, dir. Louis Myles

Special mention to this short that really stole our hearts. If we could will this one into the shortlist ourselves we would because we truly loved it so much. It made the IDA shortlist but without having major distribution we have a hard time seeing it making the shortlist. We only hope that the Academy sees this one and loves it as much as us and sneaks it in there!



Analysis Behind Our Predictions:


Largely over the past 2 years the documentary shorts category has been controlled by big distributors, with 14/15 on the shortlist coming from major names in distribution. Here is the breakdown historically from the past two years:


95th Academy Awards

Netflix -2

The New Yorker - 4

NYT - 1

POV -1

Paramount - 3

HBO - 1

Nat Geo - 1

Open Eyes - 1

No major distribution- 1


94th Academy Awards

Netflix - 4

The New Yorker -2

NYT - 3

Paramount - 2

Time/Field of Vision - 1

Disney - 1

Neon - 1

No major distribution - 1


As of this moment we have 35 shorts that are submitted that fall under that umbrella.


MSNBC/Time (1)- Ayenda


Netflix (2) - The Dads, Camp Courage


New York Times (5) - Oasis, Away, Neighbour Abdi, Island in Between and Ramboy


Paramount (5) - A Tattoo On My Brain, Last Song From Kabul, The ABCs of Book Banning, Alive in Bronze, Birthing a Nation


PBS (3) - Under G-d, Between Earth & Sky, Breaking Silence


New Yorker (11) - Deciding Vote, Nina and Irene, American Santa, Puffling, Liturgy of Anti-Tank Obstacles, Goldie, EcoHack, The Feeling of Being Close to You, Dear Max, Parker, The Barber of Little Rock


Disney (1) - Nai Nai and Wei Po


Amazon (with Mercury Studios) (1) - Note of Defiance


Searchlight/LA Times (2) - The Last Repair Shop, Apayauq


Field of Vision (2) - The Takeover, When It Started to Burn


ESPN (1) - Black Girls Play


HBO (1) - How We Get Free


So likely the majority of the shortlist will come from these 35 films.


So How do our predictions from above breakdown?


Netflix - 1

Paramount - 3

The New Yorker -4

POV - 1

NYT - 1

HBO - 1

Searchlight/LATimes - 1

Disney - 1

Field of Vision - 1

No major distribution - 1


Historically, we feel this lines up with what we have seen the last couple of years.



Hot Topic Issues

There are many common themes throughout the doc shorts each year. We tried to spread the love between them although some are more hot topic themes than others. We tried to spread the love around in our list and pick at least one from each category, but not too many either as to oversaturate the list with a certain topic. Common themes include:


Afghanistan - Taliban Takeover/Womens Rights

The Takeover

The Noble Guardian

Ayenda

Last Song From Kabul


Ukraine War

Camp Courage

Among the Sirens

Away

Chernobyl 22

Indomitable

Liturgy of Anti-Tank Obstacles

Note of Defiance

When It Started to Burn


Book Banning

The ABCs of Book Banning


Transgender

Apayauq

The Dads


Abortion

Deciding Vote

Under G-d


People with Disabilities

Every Day After

Breaking Silence

A Tattoo On My Brain

Mighty Penguins

My Brother is Deaf

Isa

The Unicorn in Snow Pants Suddenly Ran Off


Holocaust

Jack and Sam

Nina and Irene


Racial Inequality

The Barber From Little Rock

American Santa

Birthing a Nation

A Chocolate Lens

Black Girls Play

How We Get Free



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ShortStick

The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

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