Monday, February 14, 2011
This may be the year when the long-lived boom in high-quality documentary film makes the transition from trend to entrenched institution. At least, that’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed to think when it opened up a new space for documentaries in the Academy Awards this year.
The Best Documentary (Short Subject) category joins Best Short Film (Animated) and Best Short Film (Live Action), offering Oscar completists and fans of short films a total of 15 nominees to catch before the Oscars air and short films vanish from theater marquees for another year.
The first crop of documentaries are all from the USA, except for one USA/Papua New Guinea coproduction. They’re all pretty somber, looking at the human costs of manmade horrors like catastrophic pollution, war, or the non-state-sponsored killings targeting a particular religious or ethnic group that seem to be the curse of the 21st century. But they manage to work in that trademark American optimism too, mostly by examining their problems through the lens of a person or group that is working to give peace, or people, a chance.
The teachers and administrators in Strangers No More run a thriving secular humanist school in Tel Aviv that welcomes traumatized teens from all over the world. They offer the kids not only a good education but a nurturing community, from which they can rebuild a broken sense of trust and hope, even find surrogate parents to replace those they have lost. They’re clearly doing the work of the angels, but the real heroes are the students themselves, who deal with the often unspeakable traumas they have suffered with dignity and grace, while shifting their focus – with the help of their teachers – from the past to the present and future.
There’s a little too much self-congratulation on the part of the teachers, and things are too often said rather than shown – generally by school staff rather than the children themselves – in this talking heads-heavy film. That diminishes its impact, though what we learn about the children’s backgrounds and what we see of their characters is so strong that it’s still very moving. But if Strangers No More doesn’t dive deep into the lives it shows, it does raise pointed questions about the millions of children who aren’t lucky enough to find a sanctuary like this. As a bittersweet exchange between one father and the school administrator points out, the basics offered here – a high school education, freedom from persecution, social acceptance – are out of reach for so many international refugees that they make even Israel look like a safe haven.
Poster Girl has the opposite problem. It homes in close on its subject, former cheerleader and National Merit Scholar Robynn Murray, as she copes with PTSD, fits of rage, and a deep sense of shame and betrayal after a tour of duty in Iraq. Director Sara Nesson makes us mourn the blighting of such a promising young life, but she doesn’t quite make the connection to the tens of thousands of other young vets coping with similar problems. The movie’s title refers to a poster of a cocky-looking Murray and a couple of her fellow soldiers in full combat gear, which the Army used to recruit other young women – but it also represents a missed opportunity. This is one movie that could have used a couple more talking heads, maybe including a psychologist or someone from one of the anti-war vet groups, to provide a wider context for the damage that was done to Murray and talk about what could be done to protect others from the same fate. As it is, Murray comes off more as a pitiable victim than the powerful voice she is trying to be for her fellow wounded warriors and the Iraqi civilians they terrorized.
Sun Come Up, the Papua New Guinea coproduction, is a competent account of the plight of one of the first groups of a whole new kind of refugee. Calm, reasonable, and saddened by the prospect of abandoning the idyllic island where their people have lived for hundreds of years, the peaceful citizens of the Carteret Islands (the islands are right next to PNG) are poster people for global warming refugees. The film follows them as they look for another home before the rising ocean, which is already flooding their fields with salt water and ruining their crops, engulfs the island altogether.
Killing in the Name highlights a Jordanian Muslim named Ashraf whose wedding party was blown up by a suicide bomber. Despite the dangers of speaking out against this form of self-proclaimed jihad, Ashraf is waging a campaign to get Muslims to speak up against suicide bombings, which he condemns as defying the teachings of the Koran. And in Warriors of Quigang, a self-taught lawyer named Zhang leads the other citizens of his tiny farming community in a campaign against the factories that are poisoning their air, land, and water. They’re fighting for their own home, but what they do could affect the whole world’s health. If, that is, they manage to stand up to the goons who beat, jail, and terrorize people who protest the poisoning of China’s environment. Zhang and the handful of other environmental activists shown in the film don’t look like firebrands, but what they’re calling for is truly revolutionary – nothing less than a political system in which the will of the people supersedes that of the corporations that rule more of the world every year.
One of the nominees for best animated film, Let’s Pollute (USA), is also about protecting the environment, but the preachiness and the hamfisted “humor” of this spoof how-to, which parodies those didactic voice-of-God educational filmstrips nobody’s making or watching any more, neuter its message.
The other animated shorts include The Gruffalo, a sweet but too slow and predictable (though I suppose very young kids might like those qualities) UK/German coproduction. It’s about a squirrel mother (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) who teaches her babies about the dangers of the forest by narrating a sunny story-within-a-story about a mouse that outsmarts a monster. The Lost Thing, a UK/Australian coproduction, is a melancholy meditation on technology and waste with a retro-modern steam punk look. Day & Night, a sometimes appealing, sometimes opaque imagining of the rivalry between daytime and nighttime, comes from the USA courtesy of Pixar, which bundled it with Toy Story 3 last year.
My favorite of this batch is Madagascar, A Journey Diary (pictured at top), an impressionistic hand-drawn account of French writer/director Bastien Dubois’ time in that country that shimmers with life, drawing us into a landscape and culture that he appears to have seen with more sensitivity and depth than most tourists achieve.
My pick of the live-action shorts is Na Wewe, a suspenseful, nicely detailed account of a vanful of Africans in 1994 Burundi who refuse to yield to intimidation when a contingent of soldiers commands them to separate into two groups, the Hutu on one side of the road and the Tutsi “snakes” on the other. The director – like a man picked up by the van just before the soldiers stop it, who witnesses the event – is from Belgium.
The other four live-action shorts are all about the angst of a pre-teen or adolescent boy. The Confession, a beautifully photographed and expertly edited British film, starts out sweet and then goes surprisingly dark as a little boy tries to do something bad so he’ll have something to tell the priest at his first confession and wreaks unintended havoc. Wish 143 (UK) also changes tone partway through, but with less success. It starts out with promise, as a young man with terminal cancer tells someone from a make-a-wish foundation that his only wish is to have sex before he dies, but it becomes disappointingly maudlin. Ireland’s The Crush is a wryly funny revenge story about a boy who saves his beloved teacher from a man who, as he rightly insists, doesn’t deserve her. And in the slight but entertaining God of Love (USA), a dorky young adult suffering from a bad case of unrequited love finds his prayers answered in an unexpected way.
I’m sure there were a lot of short films made last year that I’d like as much as these or more. I liked Bill Plympton’s The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger, which made it to the Academy’s short list but didn’t get a nomination, better than most of the animated shorts that were picked, and other shorts I saw at last year’s South by Southwest film festival didn’t even get on the short list. But then my favorite features don’t usually get nominated for Oscars either, so why should shorts be any different?
Even so, it’s good to see short films get a little play once a year, and there’s plenty to like – maybe even love – in this batch.
Written for TimeOFF