Review: Oscar-nominated documentary shorts tackle issues of race, gender, mental health, opioids and the justice system

Jan Rader, fire department chief in Huntington, West Virginia, responds to an overdose call in the documentary “Heroin(e)” (Courtesy of film director Elaine McMillion Sheldon Instagram).

The 90th annual Oscars takes place on Sunday, March 4 at 5 p.m. (PST). The documentary (short subject) category serves as a gratifying break from the movie star-driven, high budget films that dominate other categories. These films are the highly artistic products of pure passion from the directors and producers who make them — the films are not big money-makers. This year’s documentary shorts tell compelling stories dealing with increasingly relevant social issues. The Broadway Metro theater in Eugene is showing each of these films, which range from 29 to 40 minutes in duration, in two separate programs through Thursday, Feb. 22.

“Traffic Stop”

“Traffic Stop” examines the current tension between American law enforcement agencies and Black communities through the story of 26-year-old school teacher Breaion King.

The film shows dashcam video of King being pulled over for a traffic violation in Austin, Texas in June 2015. The traffic stop should have been routine and uneventful. But viewers watch as the officer’s frustration escalates quickly while he asks King to comply with his requests. The officer then pulls King out of her car and wrestles her to the ground as she cries for help.

Following the violent altercation, while King is being driven to the police station under arrest, backseat video shows her conversation with a different police officer about racial bias in law enforcement. The officer tells King that police are afraid of Black people because they have “violent tendencies.”

The documentary juxtaposes recordings of King’s arrest with footage of her passionately teaching children math and taking a dance class. The juxtaposition serves as a jarring contrast between one of the worst days of King’s life and her normal, productive daily life.

The film is entirely from King’s perspective and doesn’t include comment from the arresting officers. But King’s story reveals the underlying fear many members of Black communities have toward the police, and how that fear is often justified.


No one expects to fall in love at the age of 95 or 96, but Edith and Eddie, an unlikely Virginian couple, did after they met and won a $5000 lottery ticket together. The film begins with an endearing love story about an interracial couple. Their romance could not be more hopeful.

Not long into the film, the complicated nature of this couple’s situation becomes apparent.

They live in Edith’s lifelong Virginia home, but the house is not suitable for people their age. With Edith’s dementia, her daughter — and legal guardian — wants her to move out of the house and stay with her in Florida. Edith resists leaving because of traumatic experiences she’s had with her son-in-law and her daughter isn’t willing to care for her husband Eddie.

Edith’s other daughter lives in Virginia too and wants her sister to let Edith and Eddie stay in their current home. This family dispute spirals downward as lawyers get involved.

The film is a tragedy. Viewers see the immense pressure external forces increasingly place on Edith and Eddie’s love. As the film progresses, the futility of the couple’s hope to live out their final days together and happy becomes agonizingly clear.

“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405”

“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405” is a work of art. Not only do viewers see stunning art pieces and graphic animation throughout the film, but the narrative and cinematic arrangement also creates a mesmerizing, dream-like viewing experience. The documentary focuses on L.A.-based artist Mindy Alper and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. The film depicts the effect her struggle with mental health has on her relationships with family and friends and her troubled childhood.

The film culminates with an exhibition of Alper’s art in an L.A. gallery. Along the way, interviews with Alper, her mother and her art teacher depict Alper’s difficult life experience.

Despite completely losing her ability to speak following a nervous breakdown at the age of 27, Alper’s articulation of her psychological battles and artistic process reveals her genius.

This documentary shows the positive effect structured artistic outlets can have on people dealing with incapacitating mental illnesses. It is a breathtaking look at the life and work of a modern artist who deserves wide public attention.


“Heroin(e)” features the efforts of three women to combat the opioid crisis in their hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington’s opioid overdose rate is now 10 times the national average. The stories of these three women and the addicts they help intersect in powerful and intricate ways.

Necia Freeman plays the sympathetic and supportive role in this network of people addressing the opioid crisis in this community. She runs the Brown Bags and Backpacks ministry, which passes out meals to women on the street who in many cases have been forced to resort to prostitution to support themselves in the economically depressed region.

Family court judge Patricia Keller plays an authoritative, structure-providing role for addicts in Huntington. She runs drug-court recovery hearings and demands commitment and honesty from the people whose cases she oversees. Some heed her demand, but others don’t, and it’s fascinating to watch Keller try to help those individuals.

Jan Rader is the emergency responder in town. She is the chief of the fire department and her primary job in recent years has been administering anti-overdose medication following emergency calls. In one two-month period, Rader responded to 27 overdoses.

In the most poignant scene, Rader responds to a report of someone overdosing in a Sheetz gas station convenience store. While she and other first responders are treating the patient, Sheetz employees continue to ring up customers in the background. The community is so desensitized to the opioid crisis that they are completely unaffected by it happening just feet away from them.

“Knife Skills”

“Knife Skills” shows what it goes into making a top-notch French restaurant, but there’s a twist: nearly all the employees of Edwins in Cleveland were formerly incarcerated, including the founder,.

Founder Brandon Edwin Chrostowski started the nonprofit restaurant to give structure to people who were recently released from prison with camaraderie and a common goal. He saw those things as crucial to reducing recidivism rates and ensuring their long-term success by giving them a fresh start.

People in the program learn every aspect of the restaurant business from experts. They cook gourmet food, learn about fine French wines and become intimately versed in the hospitality business.

Chrostowski and Director of Culinary Gerry Grim don’t go easy on people in the program. In a restaurant striving to be five-star, there’s no room for mistakes. In the beginning of the film, the group of trainees starts at 120 people. Over the course of six weeks, the restaurant team is reduced to 35.

Viewers can’t help but root for people in the program to succeed. They see employees struggle and grow in that environment as the film reveals the diverse backstories of a few participants.

Throughout the film, people’s passion for their new goal evolves, and as Chrostowski says, “the one thing people need to know is that they have something to prove.”

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