How long does a documentary need to be? Frederick Wiseman frequently goes long, and Oscar-winning “OJ: Made in America” ran nearly eight hours. Lately, with “Bill Russell: Legend” and “Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker,” streamers have embraced the “two-part documentary” — a fancy term for what used to be called a miniseries. So, while there are no limits on how much longer docs can get, it’s refreshing to see a compelling subject covered in 40 minutes or less, and doubly rewarding to realize that four of the five packaged in ShortsTV’s “2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary” found audiences on their own merits, even without theatrical distribution.
The only one you can’t see for free is Jay Rosenblatt’s charming “How Do You Measure a Year?,” a 29-minute assembly of home-movie footage. Every year, Rosenblatt sat his daughter Ella down on her birthday and peppered her with questions, creating a ritual that, when presented thus, allows audiences to watch how her personality and priorities evolve. At first, she’s a squirmy subject, saying the darndest things (her 3-year-old answer to “What is power?” comes as a surprise), but as she physically matures, Ella also becomes more sullen and withdrawn. In some ways, it’s surprising that Rosenblatt would share this project with the public, while at the same time, it serves as the most basic version of an important nonfiction form — the longitudinal documentary — like three chapters of Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series boiled down to a single feel-good short.
Working in a more traditional form, “The Elephant Whisperers” director Kartiki Gonsalves spirits audiences away to Asia’s conservation-minded Theppakadu Elephant Camp, where husband and wife Bomman and Bellie foster an orphaned pachyderm named Raghu. From what we see of their life, this is a worthy but by no means lucrative pursuit — reminiscent of last year’s Oscar-caliber feature “Wildcat” — that’s rewarded largely by the bond they develop with the remarkable creature (expect tears when rangers separate the creature from its “family”). Raghu expresses its personality in amusing and memorable ways, showing jealousy when the couple takes in a second orphan, Ammu. Toward the end of this attractive and engaging 39-minute short (enriched with footage of other local wildlife), Gonsalves informs us that elephant behavior is changing as a result of global warming, exposing the animals to fresh dangers as they venture into human-inhabited areas.
Fourth on the program (and best of the bunch, artistically speaking), The New Yorker Documentary production “Haulout” raises a similar warning about the Arctic walrus population — although the animals don’t appear at first. Every year, Russian marine biologist Maxim Arbugaev (who co-directs with wife Evgenia) ventures to Siberia, shacking up in a drafty wooden cabin to study the potentially endangered creatures. Historically, the walruses might emerge onto ice sheets in the area, but as temperatures rise, they have no choice but to come ashore, resulting in dangerous overcrowding conditions (perhaps as many as 100,000 at peak haulout). A few lines of text superimposed over the closing shots explain the problem in what’s otherwise an understated largely observational 25 minutes — which makes that first reveal of countless blubbery brown bodies assembled outside Maxim’s window all the more surprising.
Separating these two eco-focused shorts, Joshua Seftel’s half-hour “Stranger at the Gate” (also commissioned by The New Yorker) is one of those rare stories that turns a horrific hate crime — an aborted domestic terrorism strike, wherein Richard McKinney reversed his plans to bomb the Islamic Center of Muncie — into a plea for redemption. The way “Mac” and members of the mosque tell it, the xenophobic ex-Marine wandered in one day looking out of place. Instead of turning him away, the Muslims embraced the stranger with hospitality and kindness, which startled Mac and inspired a conversion. The filmmakers weren’t there to witness the change of heart they describe, which obliges Seftel to re-create everything using a clunky mix of drone shots, archival photos and talking heads — hardly the ideal way to tell the story, but clearly effective enough to be nominated.
Rounding out the nearly three-hour program is Netflix’s fascinating and frequently enraging “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” a 39-minute history lesson on (for younger viewers) or flashback to (for those who lived through it) the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Making nifty work of archival footage, co-directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy focus on Washington’s most outspoken plus-one, Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, who didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give the president or reporters a piece of her mind. She was a loose cannon who genuinely “scared” Nixon, according to recordings made in the Oval Office, where she’s mentioned more than 100 times. Martha may have been a “pain in the ass” (Nixon’s words), but this hindsight-is-20/20 portrait reframes her as the target of gaslighting. If that term seems overused today, the short’s title provides both a case study and a clunky synonym for the year’s trendiest accusation.