The 2023 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts spotlight human nature, and nature itself

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

This year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries are remarkably varied, revisiting our recent political history, examining the roots of terrorism at home and sharing snapshots of a young person’s development. Even the two nature-based entries wildly differ in approach and tone.

'The Elephant Whisperers'

A man and a woman are assigned by an Indian governmental agency to care for an orphaned baby elephant. They grow to love the elephant — and each other. Sounds like a Hollywood movie, but the true story of caretakers Bomman and Bellie and young Raghu is the subject of "The Elephant Whisperers."

Director Kartiki Gonsalves says she happened upon the story when she was driving and came upon Bomman and Raghu walking together. "I found Raghu to be super-tiny; I'd never experienced such a young calf before. They share this very deep bond. Raghu basically looked at Bomman as a father, his mother and everything."

The film investigates the emotional bond that can form between humans and these intelligent, idiosyncratic animals. "I fell in love with Raghu," Gonsalves says. "This story highlights the beauty of man and animal working together. I believe coexistence is the way we need to move forward into the future."


One of the most beautifully photographed Oscar nominees, "Haulout" finds a solitary man living in a tiny, ramshackle hut on a remote Siberian shoreline. He opens his window to the close-up face of a walrus.

Co-director Evgenia Arbugaeva was covering a community of Indigenous people who took her to "a beach I didn't know about. It was very foggy, with a mysterious feel. And it was full of bones and skulls."

That's when she learned of the lone scientist’s yearly pilgrimage to study thousands of the massive aquatic mammals driven to spend more time on land by the reduction in sea ice. "It was a roller coaster of emotions," Arbugaeva says, "being super-intrigued by the scientist, then observing these beautiful animals, then the devastating realization of the impact of climate change."

'How Do You Measure a Year?'

Each year on his daughter's birthday, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt interviewed her — from ages 2 to 18. The result is a kind of 17-year-spanning home movie: Video snapshots of a person's evolution. "When she saw it, she was a little embarrassed by a few scenes,” says Rosenblatt, “but she didn't ask for anything to be cut. She really likes it a lot."

The film captures stages many parents will recognize — the free, goofy kid; the emerging person discovering her interests; the teen weighed down by darker moods. "It's age 14 when she's obviously depressed and I ask what's important to her and she says, 'To be happy.' I ask her, is she happy, and she says, 'Not really.' People who have seen that, that really has an impact,” says the filmmaker of daughter Ella. “And that she comes out of it is important."

Note to viewers: Make sure to watch to the end (for Ella's solo postscript, which her father hadn't seen until he assembled the entire film).

'The Martha Mitchell Effect'

Until recently, Martha Mitchell was a semi-forgotten figure in the sordid tale of the Watergate scandal; 2022 changed that with the Starz miniseries "Gaslit" and Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison's "The Martha Mitchell Effect." Now, the Cabinet wife-turned-media darling-turned-accused kook is known as "Martha Mitchell, whistle-blower." It's the first term that comes up in a Google search of the wife of President Nixon’s attorney general and bestie John Mitchell, a woman who dared to tell the truth, only to lose everything.

Alvergue says, "She was as famous as Jackie O., a household name. We did some digging and were like, 'Not only is she fabulous and hilarious; she's wicked smart.' "

Co-director Debra McClutchy says, "We thought, ‘This sounds familiar: A woman being gaslighted.' "

The Mitchells were apparently a happy couple until Watergate forced Nixon acolytes to choose between him and anything — or anyone — else. Says Alvergue, "I think the heart of it is the love triangle with Martha and Nixon vying for the attention of John Mitchell."

'Stranger at the Gate'

A Marine comes to believe that the Muslim community in his town poses a threat. He plans to detonate a bomb where it can inflict maximum casualties. "Stranger at the Gate" conveys this gripping tale with an amazing twist and important messages about healing.

"The whole point was to share this inspiring and uplifting message," says director Joshua Seftel, who grew up facing antisemitism in upstate New York.

"Kids called me [slurs], threw pennies at me; someone threw a rock through our front window," he says. "After 9/11, I saw my Muslim friends facing a hate that was familiar. So I used my platform to tell stories about American Muslims."

Through his research, he found the veteran, Richard "Mac" McKinney, and other major figures in the film — including community leaders Bibi and Saber Bahrami: "These are the most heroic people I've ever met." The Bahramis (and others) did not meet the threat with force; instead, their actions are what Seftel calls, "The kind of heroism we need right now."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.