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HollyShorts 2023: 5 Documentaries to Watch

For many years, the HollyShorts Film Festival has been one of the most highly regarded showcases for films seeking Academy Award qualification for Best Live Action Short and Best Animated Short. And now for the first time, Oscar hopefuls for Best Documentary Short can also qualify through this Hollywood-based festival. With the extra attention on the non-fiction category this year, it’s no surprise that the lineup is filled with many promising titles. From those 36 films, here are five that we’d recommend:

Breaking Silence

Breaking Silence & Forgiving Johnny

Over the past decade, there has been increasing debate about the need to reform the justice system in America. But while much of that discussion has surrounded racial issues, two HollyShorts docs highlight the need for an even broader perspective. In Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot’s Forgiving Johnny, LA County public defender Noah Cox examines the case of one of his clients – the titular Johnny – who faced a 20-year prison sentence for assault, despite suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As Cox guides audiences through the justice system’s flaws and his own efforts to solve them, Forgiving Johnny also serves as a plea for society to be more understanding and forgiving of developmentally disabled people.

Meanwhile, over in a Texas, another compassionate man advocates for the rights of another category of disadvantaged people. Directed by Amy Beach and Annie Silverstein, Breaking Silence follows Walker, a deaf man who volunteers as a chaplain at Estelle Prison in an effort to bridge the communication gap facing its deaf prisoners. As we follow Walker’s daily life, he reveals his own struggles with his formerly incarcerated hearing daughter and his story ultimately becomes even more moving and impactful.

The Night Doctrine

The personal is political indeed in Mauricio Rodriguez Pons and Almudena Toral’s The Night Doctrine, one of the most compelling short films of the year. This sobering documentary traces a young Afghan-Pakistani’s journey to find out who murdered her family 30 years ago, which evolves into an investigation into the dark secrets of the CIA’s excessively violent night raids. Featuring arresting animation, fluid editing and haunting narration, The Night Doctrine poignantly brings Lynzy Billing’s traumatizing revelations to life and reminds us of the brutal cost of the Afghan war.


They Came From All Over

Another recent Oscar winner in the mix at HollyShorts is Rayka Zehtabchi with her latest effort They Came From All Over. Set in a small town in Iowa, this documentary tells the story of a beloved grocery store owner who faces the aftermath of the loss of his business to fire. Through Zehtabchi’s warm filmmaking style, this bittersweet human interest story sparks a conversation about America’s food deserts and celebrates the humanity that emerges out of adversity.


Like any subculture, the skating world is prone to exclusionary attitudes, a reality that a trans woman Alexa learns in Diane Russo Cheng’s Transenders. Coping with transphobia within the skating community, she is forced to reflect deeper on her identity and the opportunity to inspire others. And thanks to wondrously dynamic cinematography that captures the thrills and spills of Alexa’s sporting and personal life, this beautifully empathetic film ensures that those internal contemplations are vividly felt.

HollyShorts 2023 screenings take place in person at the TCL Chinese Theatre from August 10-19 and virtually through BITPIX from August 10 -27.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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