Friday, February 17, 2012

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films

The Oscar-nominated short films are playing in select cities around the country. In New York I saw them at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. Due to licensing issues, God Is the Bigger Elvis did not play in this program.

In the last decade or so documentary feature films have grown more and more to resemble narrative films. Not only are they often more professionally made than many documentaries were before, but they push a strong narrative quality that I imagine is a reflection of the need to compete at the theatrical box office with fictional films. Often they feel bloated, overblown and overlong. But what I discovered in experiencing the Oscar-nominated short films programs is that documentary short films are where really interesting work – in terms of both subject matter and style – is still being done.


Incident in New Baghdad from director James Spione is a lean 22 minutes long and feels like one of those short documentaries I used to see on HBO that would come on between a TV series and a feature film. You might remember the Wikileaks video that surfaced a couple years back that showed footage from an American helicopter as it opened fire on armed men on the ground, destroying a black van and injuring two small children in the process. This film is less about that incident than it is about Ethan McCord, one of the first infantrymen to arrive on the scene after the carnage. McCord went to Iraq with the belief that he was there to do good and help the Iraqi people. He is now an outspoken advocate for getting American troops out of Iraq. His experience completely changed his views. The film features McCord’s own disturbing photographs on the ground of the dead bodies and the injured children.

I think this would have been a much more interesting documentary had it spent more time on McCord’s personal problems with PTSD and the military’s refusal to come to terms with it as a real affliction and less time on what happened in a street skirmish in the middle of a chaotic war. This is not to mitigate in any way what soldiers go through, but this documentary didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know about the experience of war: it’s terrible and terrifying; soldiers have an existential struggle for survival; it causes terrible destruction of human beings. The movie didn’t do enough to convince me that this incident is reason enough to call off the whole thing.

Much more powerful and moving was Saving Face by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about women who are the victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. It principally focuses on the stories of two women, although many more are featured briefly and still hundreds more remain in the shadows. The first woman, Zakia, had acid thrown in her face by her husband, whom she claims is a drug addict and alcoholic and committed his act of barbarism after she didn’t have any money to give him to support his habit. While in police custody he claims some random man threw acid on her. The other woman is a 25-year old who is ostracized and castigated by her husband’s entire family, who all took part in burning her face with acid, dousing her with gasoline and lighting her on fire. Because she had nowhere else to go, she apologized to them to make amends so she could continue living there. I can’t imagine a worse horror. To top it off, they bricked up the doorway to her quarters so she has no access to her daughter and she’s pregnant again. Her husband and his family claim she is crazy and threw gasoline on herself and accidentally lit herself aflame with a nearby candle. We also hear brief stories such as that of a 13-year old girl who rebuffed the advances of her school teacher who responded by throwing acid in her face. There are many more like this to go around.

I can’t recall any other documentary drawing such ire from within me. I have never wanted so badly to see someone savagely punished for a crime as I wanted for these disgusting excuses for men. This film highlights a common trend in Pakistan and indeed in most Middle Eastern countries: the subjugation of women; their lack of rights and recourse for justice; the stubborn refusal by a male-dominated society to see women as full and equal members of society deserving of respect and a decent quality of life.

The third main party in this documentary is Dr. Jawad, a Pakistani plastic surgeon who lives in London and has donated his services to facial reconstruction for these women. At the same time there is a bill in the Pakistani Parliament calling for mandatory life imprisonment for perpetrators of acid attacks. In these stories we find the silver lining. There are people willing to fight for these women. There are, in fact, women in Parliament who have the will and the power to carry on these fights.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is a documentary in search of meaning. Its subject matter is well-deserving of a documentary much better than this one. It opens with someone’s home video footage of last year’s tsunami swallowing up a Japanese village. Then it goes on to interview several residents of the village providing heartfelt testimonials about lost friends and relatives and the long slog of sifting through rubble and rebuilding. Then director Lucy Walker spends about 20 minutes – the second half of the film – listening to her subjects talk about sakura, or cherry blossoms.

This section starts well enough as a sweet little metaphor. A month or more after the tsunami, they begin to see the first cherry blossoms appear. The cherry trees have survived and they continue as they have every year for, in some cases, a thousand years. Sure, there aren’t any tourists this year to come and view the magisterial trees, but they give hope to the local people. Then the metaphor is flogged to death. And then it’s beaten senseless for good measure. And then it’s kicked a little when it’s down. I have never seen a metaphor stretched, pulled and extended to such absurd proportions. After about 10 minutes I could feel myself getting bored and uncomfortable. A few minutes after that I wanted to shout at the screen, “Okay! I get it! The cherry blossoms represent hope and new beginnings to the Japanese people affected by the tsunami!” It begins to feel suspiciously like the people have been prompted to make profound statements about cherry blossoms in some attempt to make the Japanese people appear on film as philosophical and in tune with nature as we have (maybe stereotypically) come to think of them. The film used up all the good will it earned in its first half.

The fourth and final film in the program is The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier in the Civil Rights Movement by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday. The subject of this moving little documentary is James Armstrong, an 85 year old barber in Birmingham, Alabama, who was a participant in and witness to the struggle for civil rights in the 50s and 60s. The cameras begin following him on Election Day 2008, when a black man was elected President of the United States. It’s not the most focused documentary but it’s an effective portrait of a few actors in the Civil Rights Movement and some of the big events that paved the way for the election of Barack Obama. Armstrong has been a witness to history. He’s had Martin Luther King, Jr., in his barber chair, which looks like it hasn’t been reupholstered since then. His car too is literally held together with duct tape and wire, almost like he doesn’t want to give up the past. But after the inauguration, in failing health and at the advice of his doctor, he puts his barber shop up for sale – an act that somehow signals the end of an era in the Movement. Armstrong died in August 2009. He couldn’t make it to Obama’s inauguration, but he bore witness to some of the greatest and most profound moments in the history of black people in the South.

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