The Best Documentary Short Film field tends to be one of the furthest-reaching at every Oscars, and the shorts nominated at the 95th Oscars are no exception, each differing vastly from the next in both subject and execution: One of the films is about a single orphaned elephant finding a new home; another about the effect climate change has on hundreds of thousands of walruses. One shows a young woman finding her place in the world while another shines a light on a woman lost to history. And finally, one recounts, in all its twists and turns, a hate crime thwarted by love. Whether in South India or the Siberian Arctic, Washington D.C. or small-town Indiana, and unfolding over a few months, a few years, or a lifetime, each film has its own message — often a political one — and remains profoundly personal throughout.
Below, watch the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts and hear from the filmmakers behind each.
The Elephant Whisperers
An indigenous couple in South India, Bomman and Bellie, fall in love with Raghu, an orphaned elephant given into their care, and tirelessly work to ensure his recovery and survival.
What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?
Kartiki Gonsalvez (director): It's absolutely surreal. On behalf of Bomman, Bellie and our beautiful elephant friends Raghu and Ammu, we are absolutely thrilled to receive this great honor! This is helping spread the message of the film and create more awareness, empathy, and connection to elephants and other living beings that we share our spaces with. It took five years to make my debut documentary, a long personal journey from the place I call home, that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Kattunayakan Community, who opened their hearts and trusted us with their unique experiences and a pathway ahead.
I feel extremely grateful and thankful to Netflix for believing in the power of this truly unique family story which showcases the lovely sacred bond between man and animal. With Netflix by our side, what more could we have asked for? It has gone out to 231 million subscribers in 190 countries and multiple languages. I am incredibly blessed to have such a global outreach to help spread the message in The Elephant Whisperers.
Guneet Monga (producer): Firstly, we are so grateful to the Academy for this nomination. The nomination feels like validation for the years of hard work we have put into making movies. It is wonderful to receive a nomination for such an incredible film that celebrates love and harmony. I hope this visibility helps the indigenous community in India that Bomman and Bellie belong to get greater recognition and support for their hard work and passion. It's also a big win for the documentary filmmaking community in India, and I am so honored to be part of it.
What was Bellie and Bomman's reaction to the news?
Gonsalvez: Bomman and Bellie are very thrilled and excited that their story has gone out to many thousands of people. They are also enjoying looking at fan art that is being sent to me from across the globe and personal messages being sent to them about their wonderful work and our connection to the natural world. It is very special for them in so many ways.
You spent five years shooting The Elephant Whisperers. When you look back now, do you have a standout memory that has come to encompass your experience on this film?
Gonsalvez: There are many aspects that touched me on many levels during the five years. I learned that storytelling is at the heart of human existence. Storytelling can be very powerful and can change our brains and our hearts, bringing us closer to one another. Sadly, it is also used to divide communities. I hope to use storytelling as a tool to unite different communities and species and share the beauty of the natural world. While most films have focused more on humans being cured by a bond with an animal, humans being harmed by wild animals, or wild animals suffering from human expansion into their territory. The Elephant Whisperers lets viewers understand both the elephant and the human carers with minimal outside interpretation.
The Elephant Whisperers portrays the dignity of both the magnificent elephants and the indigenous people who have lived with them and cared for them for centuries. I wanted to get the audience to stop seeing animals as "the other" and start to see them as one of us. In this time, there are so many stories of animals being killed and species dying out — and this is a positive story that highlights the beauty of man and animal working together. I believe coexistence is the way we need to move forward into the future, only with mutual respect and cooperation can we save the planet.
How did making this film change you as a filmmaker?
Gonsalvez: Making this film has changed me in more ways than I can express. It has empowered me to go out and explore many more stories. Stories that involve capturing the diversity of cultures and tribes across the world along with the beauty of natural world while focusing on discussing solutions and building greater awareness and a sense of responsibility towards environmental concerns, alongside showcasing success stories in conservation that instill hope. In my eyes, I feel that human empathy transcends diversity and connects us all in our environmental cause. I also seek to give a platform to women and indigenous tribes, especially those working to conserve the planet and bringing new perspectives and a deeper public understanding to the environmental and humanitarian issues. I believes that strong imagery has the unique power of changing minds. Storytelling is bringing stories that inspire, raise awareness and ultimately effect change.
Monga: As a producer working in the industry for the last 15 years, I have never been part of a wildlife documentary. It's another level of work, because the subjects — characters, so to speak — are animals. It has given me a new perspective and broadened my horizons to a whole new type of filmmaking. One where patience and love are the most crucial part of the process. The film introduced me to an indigenous community that is fiercely protective of their work and derives great purpose, dignity, and community from what they do. They have truly been inspiring to me. They have made me reflect on one of the deep questions the film asks which is, "How much is enough?" There’s a beautiful line in the film where they say, "We take only what we need from the jungle and it is enough for all of us." That really resonated with me.
Gonsalvez: I will be working on orca-human relationships next. I am hoping this will open a whole new dimension and perspective on the relationship between man and nature. I also want to delve deeper into the lives of orcas and unravel the profound connection that the First Nations share with the world's biggest predator, whom they call legends of the sea. Both are matriarchal societies. I would like to explore other parallels between the two societies.
Monga: For Achin Jain, my producing partner at Sikhya Entertainment, and me, our strength has always been in our taste and convictions. We are the choices we make, the directors, editors, writers, and technicians we work with, and the stories we collectively choose to champion. We have dedicated years to this. We have many projects on our slate set to release this year. I am excited to go back to them and to keep growing my company. These include a wide variety of projects, from an independent action film to a social satire. I have been working on a dream project — a biographical film about a trailblazing Indian woman — for years, and I am excited to take that journey forward as well. Every day, I am thankful for the abundance in my life and the work my team and I get to do.
On a remote coast of the Siberian Arctic in a wind-battered hut, a lonely man waits to witness an ancient gathering. But warming seas and rising temperatures bring an unexpected change, and he soon finds himself overwhelmed.
What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?
Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev (directors): It means that the important topic of climate change is given attention. The spotlight our film receives now helps its message become part of conversations all over the world. We are truly grateful for that.
How did you first become interested in the story of Maxim Chakilev and these walruses, and how did you decide you wanted it to be the subject of your film?
We are native to Siberia and as a photographer and a filmmaker, we have been covering stories from the Arctic region for more than a decade. It is our homeland and a place we are very much connected to. For a few years, we've been following and photographing the community of indigenous Chukchi people in Enurmino village, one of the most isolated settlements in Chukotka, who live off the land and the sea. One day, hunters brought us to a desolate sandy beach, which had a terrible smell and was full of skulls and bones. In the middle of it stood a small hut. Hunters told us that every autumn, thousands of walruses gather here, and a lone scientist lives among them for months in this hut. The next autumn, we returned to meet the scientist and witnessed the walrus haulout for the first time. It was a shocking experience, and we felt the urgency to tell this story.
What was the biggest challenge you overcame making Haulout?
We lived with Maxim Chakilev during the whole period of his field season for three and a half months, which allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in his world and observe. There were some practical challenges, such as charging the batteries. We had a generator with us, but when walruses surrounded our hut, we couldn’t use it because they were afraid of the foreign smell and sound. These animals may look threatening because of their size and tusks, but they are vulnerable when they are on land — an unnatural environment for them — so they get scared easily. That can cause a wave of panic throughout the whole haulout. So, we had to be very careful and save batteries as much as we could.
On an emotional level, the biggest challenge was to watch walruses suffer. In an ideal world, they wouldn't come out on land at all, as they would rest on the floating ice during their migration. But because there is no ice in the Arctic Ocean, they haul out on land in huge numbers which causes stampedes and deaths. We felt helpless watching them from the door and roof of our hut, realizing that there was nothing we could do to help and that climate change is irreversible and things will only get worse.
What impact do you hope the film has on the world?
We hope that our film will contribute to the chorus of scientists and artists crying out about the state of our shared planet. And we hope our film would show the audience a glimpse of what is really happening in the Arctic, its vulnerability and the tremendous challenges it is going through.
As documentary filmmakers, we feel it is our responsibility to keep telling stories of connection to the natural world. We continue to focus on the Circumpolar North.
How Do You Measure a Year?
For 17 years, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt filmed his daughter Ella on her birthday in the same spot, asking the same questions. What results is a unique chance to watch time, to see a young woman come into focus physically, mentally and emotionally.
This is your second Oscar nomination. [Rosenblatt was nominated in this category at the 94th Oscars with When We Were Bullies.] What does it mean to be nominated again and with this film?
Jay Rosenblatt (director): It means so much to me. This new film was a long labor of love and to be honored at this high a level for such a personal and intimate project is so validating and satisfying.
What was Ella's reaction to the news? Were you able to celebrate together?
Ella was asleep in her dorm room when we watched the announcement at 5:30 a.m. I texted her immediately that she might need to get a gown. When she woke up a few hours later, she called and was beyond thrilled. We have not yet been together in person to celebrate, but that time will come very soon!
This is a documentary many, many years in the making. How did you first come up with the idea for what would eventually become How Do You Measure a Year?
This is actually the fifth film that I've made with Ella. They are all documentary comedies, though this one is more than that. The first one was called I Used To Be a Filmmaker and it covers the time from when Ella was born until she was 14 months old. I think I came up with the idea for How Do You Measure a Year? when I showed her that first completed film when she turned two. She was sitting on our couch and watching it on the TV and I was filming her reactions and asked her a few questions. That is when it occurred to me that this should be a birthday ritual. I really didn't know if I had a film until I watched all the footage 17 years later.
You have been directing short films for decades. What about the short-form medium keeps inspiring and appealing to you?
Yes, that is true. It has been decades. The question makes me feel a bit old. I never intended to only make short films. In fact, there have been several ideas that I thought would be longer projects and they always managed to become shorts, anywhere from one minute to 36 minutes. I believe films should be the lengths they are meant to be depending on the idea. It really is an organic process. There are so many feature-length films that may have been better if they were shorts. I never wanted to "pad" a film to make it longer and possibly easier to distribute. That said, perhaps I will one day make a feature if the idea warrants it.
Probably another short…
The Martha Mitchell Effect
She was once as famous as Jackie O. And then she tried to take down a President. An archival portrait of the unlikeliest of whistleblowers: Martha Mitchell, a Republican cabinet wife who was gaslighted by the Nixon Administration to keep her quiet. It offers a female gaze on Watergate through the voice of the woman herself.
What does it mean to you to be telling Martha's story now, some 50 years later?
Anne Alvergue (director): We can't be more happy that the film has received the exposure it has. Our goal was always to exhume Martha's story and afford her her rightful place in history — as a victim and key figure in the Watergate saga. She was essentially collateral damage in one of this country's biggest political scandals. So, it's really a redemption story. If we played any part in restoring her name and agency, then our job is done.
Beth Levison (producer): It feels like an honor to tell her story, now. It's funny — films are one thing when you're developing them, another thing when you're making them, and then a whole other thing when they're distributed and experienced by audiences. People are infuriated that they had never heard of her, and fascinated by her grit, gumption and integrity. Her story also runs in parallel to so much of the corruption that we've seen play out on the national stage. Unfortunately, sometimes, when I watch the film, I feel like I'm watching the most current of stories and not one that's 50 years old.
What was the piece of archival footage that blew you away most?
Alvergue: There were so many great archival gems — both in the film and on the cutting room floor, sadly. From a lost interview found in a reporter's attic, to the Free Martha protest, to the seminal White House audio that concretized the gaslighting campaign against her. But if I was to pick one, it would have to be the impromptu presser Martha held outside of her apartment building when the Senate Watergate hearings were underway and the scandal was really heating up. Martha is dressed in all white and wearing her signature cat eye sunglasses, railing against the press in defense of her husband and blaming "Mr. President." Then she claims they are going to kill her and she needs the press to protect her. There is only about one minute of this in the film but the raw footage is close to eight minutes. She is sassy, forthright, brave, and probably a little tipsy. It epitomizes her and is one of the most incredible pieces of verité footage I have ever seen in my life.
Levison: The interview with David Frost is an exceptionally compelling piece — the repartee, the nuance, the body language. It proved to be an important piece of archival film for the storytelling and key to the narrative arc. Archival gems like this allowed us to restore agency to Martha and have her tell her own story in her own words; this was one of the overriding goals of the film.
What do you hope viewers take away from this, both in terms of righting Martha's legacy and the impact she can have going forward
Levison: First and foremost, it’s important for us that audiences learn her story. History tends to repeat the same narratives and Watergate has been defined by All the President’s Men — and yet, there was a woman at the center of this narrative who's been lost to time. With this film, we had the unique opportunity to insert new details to the public's understanding of Watergate. We had the opportunity to reframe Martha's story and the public's understanding to her. The politicians weren't kind to her, nor was her husband or the male-dominated press. We hope that viewers see Martha for the courageous woman that she was — who believed in American democracy.
Women's stories are also conveniently lost to history. We also hope that viewers take away a deeper understanding of Martha's experience and the power of gaslighting; it can change the course of politics — who is held accountable, who is not, and who gets away with what. If those aren’t contemporary themes, I don’t know what are.
Alvergue: I hope viewers walk away understanding the bravery of one woman who risked it all to cross party lines to speak to truth to power. And how rare it is to find someone who does, particularly in this political climate. I also hope viewers will better understand the mechanisms of gaslighting by watching this case study, particularly women and girls. If we can recognize the tactics, we can be better equipped to call them out and fight against them.
What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?
Alvergue: This nomination means the world to me, and I hope it helps Martha Mitchell be recognized as the true heroine that she is. I also hope that this prestigious honor by the Academy shines a finer spotlight on other women buried in history — those who have been systematically silenced because they don't fit into a neat definition of a hero. There are so many pioneers in our past that have been overlooked or silenced because they were powerless. Let's reframe history through alternate lenses and unearth these stories. I myself can't wait to hear them.
Levison: It's an absolute thrill to receive an Oscar nomination. Our hope is that it shines a brighter light on Martha's story and redeems her in the public eye. Our hope is that with this 20/20 view on the systemic gaslighting of women, we can see it more clearly, when it's unfolding before our eyes.
Alvergue: For now, I have returned to my day job as a documentary feature editor but am currently developing and researching my own projects simultaneously. We as a team are also working on a related project to Martha that we hope to get off the ground later this year.
Levison: I'm producing a few more films and executive producing a few others. I'm hoping that one or two of those will come out in 2023 and that The Martha Mitchell Effect continues to engage audiences.
Stranger at the Gate
After 25 years of service, a US Marine filled with hatred for Muslims plots to bomb an Indiana mosque. When he comes face to face with the immigrants he seeks to kill, the story takes a shocking twist toward compassion, grace, and forgiveness.
How did you first become interested in this story, and how did you decide you wanted it to be the subject of your film?
Joshua Seftel (director): As a boy growing up in upstate New York, I got picked on for being Jewish — name calling, kids throwing pennies at me, and someone threw a rock through the front window of our home. By the time 9/11 came around, I was an established filmmaker, and when I saw my Muslim friends facing a similar kind of hate, I felt that I could do something to help. So, I started making short films about American Muslim stories. When one of my producers came across the story at the heart of Stranger at the Gate in a newspaper article about how a Muslim community in Muncie, Indiana prevented a fatal hate crime through kindness and compassion, we were all deeply moved. When the hero of our film, an Afghan refugee named Bibi Bahrami, discovered that a US Marine had been planning to kill her and her congregation, she invited him over for dinner. And that compassionate confrontation was transformative.
It's a story I felt needed to be told in this moment of division and hate because it shows that kindness, grace, and forgiveness can actually save lives. To me, Stranger at the Gate makes it clear that the world needs more Bibi Bahrami's — and perhaps most of all — it proves that love conquers hate.
What did it mean to have Malala Yousafzai come on as an executive producer?
Early in the process, when we thought about who would be the perfect Executive Producer for this film and its hopeful message, Malala seemed to be the obvious choice. So, when she joined the project, we were honored and delighted. Malala has made incredible achievements — and all before the age of 25 — for education and human rights. To us, she's the living embodiment of Stranger at the Gate's timely themes of compassion, grace, and forgiveness, and she shares our sense of urgency about getting this story out into the world. As Malala says, "This is a film we need right now."
When you look back on filming, do you have a standout memory that has come to encompass your experience making Stranger at the Gate?
My standout memory actually came after we finished the film and shared it for the first time with the heroes of this story, the congregants of the Islamic Center of Muncie. About 80 members gathered in the basement of the Islamic Center, and when the film's end credits came up and the lights came on, I didn't know how people would respond. Then, one congregant stood up and said, "I believe that it's imperative to find a way to make sure that every American sees this film." I was both relieved and delighted. And we've made that our mission. We want to reach as many people as we can with the message of this film because we believe it really can open hearts and minds, and bring us together.
What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?
We wanted to make sure this film would not simply preach to the choir. So, we leaned into the drama and the twists and turns inherent in this story, with the goal of attracting an audience who might not ordinarily watch a documentary on this subject matter. Ultimately, we wanted to make sure viewers stuck around for the powerful message of this film, a message they probably were not expecting. Our main goal in making this film was to use this unforgettable story to inspire and educate people — from veterans, to evangelicals, to interfaith groups, to middle and high school students. Receiving this Oscar nomination has been incredible, because it has generated a huge amount of attention and drawn even more people to the film, creating an incredible opportunity for this film’s message to reach so many.
I plan to continue telling stories that help combat hate. Our current film project is a short documentary about a 9/11 hate crime victim who goes through a massive transformation and is working to help end hatred. Hate is hate, and no matter the race, religion, or ethnicity of the subjects, I am committed to making films that stand up to it.