Thursday, February 14, 2013

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

The five nominated short documentaries are divided into two programs in most places because of the length of the films. Maybe they’ve also been split up because there’s hardly a soul who can handle in one sitting stories of women with cancer, Rwandan children with heart disease, homeless New Yorkers collecting cans and bottles for income, and a homeless teenager. There is certainly no shortage of tears in the audience during any screening of these films, all of which are deeply moving experiences and, in most cases, excellent examples of documentary filmmaking. Here are my brief reactions in rough order of preference.

The most inspiring, my favorite, and also my pick to win the award is Inocente, which follows a 15-year old artist in San Diego whose family has spent years being homeless and drifting from shelter to shelter after escaping an abusive father. Her paintings not only provide a much needed outlet of expression, but also an opportunity to make something of her life when a local program gives her the chance to put on an art show. I’m very suspicious that this girl happened to be chosen as one of two young artists out of 5000 to do a show. I have a feeling there was some manipulation or collusion between the documentarians and the charity because it feels too perfect. I’m not really concerned with that, however, because if it means this girl gets better future opportunities as a result, and also that the charity gets more exposure and thus more funding, it means it can help more people. There’s a whole lot of material crammed into this 40 minutes. The only regret is that we would love to know what happens to her ten years from now, but we may never find out.


Open Heart is a moving documentary about a group of Rwandan children requiring heart surgery to repair rheumatic heart. They are a chosen group to travel to Sudan to the only totally free cardiac hospital in Africa. It is funded by private donation and supplemented by the Sudanese government. A meeting between the hospital’s directors and President Bashir, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, is surreal. The children leave their families behind to make the 1200 mile life or death journey to the hospital where they will stay for six weeks. The youngest is a 3-year old boy, the oldest a 17-year old girl named Marie. She and the 6-year old Angelique are at the center. It is perhaps a mark of such different cultures that there were virtually no tears as parents and children parted before heading off for very risky surgery. The underlying problem that is only briefly mentioned is the near lack of sufficient antibiotics to stop the spread of strep throat, the infection that leads to rheumatic heart in the first place.

Redemption follows several New York City “canners” (people who collect bottles and cans for the five cent deposit they can redeem at recycling centers) on their daily grinds around the streets collecting thousands of items each. Most of them just barely live off it, like the Vietnam veteran who sleeps on a bench and seems way too upbeat for a homeless man. Others supplement social security payments with it, like the woman who used to be in sales and marketing for IBM and now can’t pay her rent. All of them are in desperate circumstances. The message is mostly apolitical, although there’s no avoiding the fact that there are now more canners than ever because of the economic climate. A couple of guys used to have good factory jobs, but are left with nothing. Director Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill just present us with the names of their subjects and let them do the talking. There is no agenda even if there is obvious manipulation. The tone changes dramatically from one of light spirits early on to dire by the end as we see some turning to drink and others breaking down at the terrible future prospects for their children.

Kings Point shows us a snapshot of life in a Florida retirement community full of aging New Yorkers who left the city on doctors’ orders or by personal choice. At first it feels a whimsical little story of budding relationships and petty animosities. It’s all a little childish and middle-school like, but the story grows sadder as the residents talk about loneliness, isolation from families and grandchildren, and the difficulty of finding real friends among people who are waiting to die and expecting you to die.

Mondays at Racine starts as a film about a Long Island beauty spa that opens its doors for free to cancer patients one Monday every month. We meet the sisters, Rachel and Cynthia, who run the business and then we begin meeting some of the women who seek their expertise. Then the movie pulls a bait and switch and ends up being entirely about women with cancer and the stresses it puts on their children and marriages and sex lives. What could have been a short film focusing on the efforts of a local business to help make women who have lost a large sense of their feminine identity (through hair loss or mastectomy) feel more like women again ends up as another in a long list of contributors to a sad culture of cancer. It’s not the women’s stories aren’t tragic or worth being told, but that the documentary seems to want two different things at once.

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