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The Short Films: Part III

Michael C from Serious Film here to wrap up our look at the short film categories with a tour of the Documentary shorts.

In this field we have that rarest of specimens: the genuine five-way race. I'd go so far as to put it right up there with Lead Actress as the most quality stacked category of the night. Since they are such uniformly strong contenders I'll skip the for/against format I've been using thus far and instead try to pinpoint what edge each film might have to push it ahead of the competition.

the nominees are...

KILLING IN THE NAME - USA, 39 Minutes, Dir: Jed Rothstein

Issue: Terrorism, specifically the killing of Muslims by Muslims

In 2005 Alshraf al-Khaled's wedding was interrupted by a suicide bomber who killed 27 guests including the fathers of both the bride and groom. Since then al-Khaled has devoted himself to confronting the sources of such terrorism and breaking the Muslim world's code of silence concerning Muslim on Muslim violence.

Killing in the Name makes for a powerful viewing experience. The astonishing footage it compiles includes a wrenching meeting with the father of a man responsible for one of the deadliest suicide attacks ever, an interview with an al-Queada recruiter, and, most disturbingly, al-Khaled's confrontation with a classroom full of young people indoctrinated to view these mass-murderers as heroes. Killing might be too impressive a feat of documentary filmmaking to refuse the prize.

Secret Weapon: In Alshraf al-Khaled the filmmakers have found a bona fide hero. His mission, at no small risk to himself, is equal parts inspiring and horrifying. He is the answer to every TV blowhard who seeks to paint the whole Muslim world with a single brush.

SUN COMES UP - USA, Papa New Guinea, 38 Minutes, Dir: Jennifer Redfearn

Issue: Global Warming 

Rising sea levels are slowly but surely sinking the Pacific Island paradise of Carteret. The village sends out a group of young people to the nearby war-torn island of Bougainville to see if they can find a new home for the hundreds of soon-to-be-displaced families.

Carteret Island is portrayed as a place just short of the Garden of Eden and it is heartbreaking to watch the Islanders as their worst-case scenario gradually becomes a reality. The filmmakers choose their moments well to convey the complex series of obstacles the Islanders face in their diaspora. The film is not without a few glimmers of hope at the end, but they are hard-earned and bittersweet. 

Secret Weapon: Even though all the shorts are extremely emotional (watching them back-to-back was a bit overwhelming) Sun Comes Up might just be the most touching of the lot. It is impossible not to be moved watching its inhabitants' sadness and bravery in the face of their loss. Who would have the heart to deny them the Oscar win?

THE WARRIORS OF QIUGANG - USA, 39 Minutes, Dir: Ruby Yang

Issue: Pollution, Government Corruption

The most conventional of the documentary short subjects, Warriors is the portrait of a village of simple Chinese farmers whose community is decimated by the pollution from a new factory. Their fight for change comes up against such obstacles as government corruption and threats of violence. The central figure emerges as one villager with a middle school education who becomes the reluctant leader of the cause. Teaching himself the intricacies of the law, he finds - to his own surprise as much as anyone else - that he is a formidable foe for the forces who seek to crush dissent. There are echoes of the Oscar-winning The Cove in the fight against a government aggressively trying to ignore a problem.

Secret Weapon: Scope. The familiarity of the subject matter shouldn't detract from the achievement of the filmmakers here. Not content to just point the cameras at ruined crops and hulking gray factories, they stuck with this story for years getting the full picture of the story and the society that produced it.

POSTER GIRL - USA, 38 Minutes, Dir: Sara Nesson

Issue: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Iraq War, The Treatment of Veterans

Poster Girl looks at all its big issues through the portrait of Iraq War veteran Robynn Murray who at the age of 19 went from all-American cheerleader to hard boiled machine gunner roaming the streets of Baghdad. Now, years later, she suffers from crippling anxiety attacks, has trouble coping the memories of war time, and has to navigate a labyrinth of red tape in order to claim her disability checks.

More than any of the other entries of this field Poster Girl leaps off the screen with a burn through intensity, largely due to the riveting presence of Sgt. Robynn Murray. You seriously can't take your eyes off her as she boils with anger, crumbles in pain, and rages articulately with feelings of betrayal at the institutions she trusted. Poster Girl is a tough film to shake.

Secret Weapon:  As much as Academy members can sympathize with the plights facing poor foreigners Poster Girl is going to hit closer to home. For British and American Academy it is going to reopen a lot of wounds.

STRANGERS NO MORE - USA, 40 Minutes, Dir: Karen Goodman, Kirk Simon

Issue: Prejudice

Although the horrors of war exist constantly around the edges of Strangers No More, this is the most hopeful of the documentary shorts. Strangers tells the story of the Bailik-Rogozin school in the heart of Tel-Aviv bringing together displaced children from dozens of countries around the world many who have arrived in Israel fleeing for the lives.

Strangers is perhaps the least impressive nominee from a filmmaking standpoint. Its straight forward account of one school year unfolds pretty much how you would expect. At feature length I would say this doc needed to dig deeper into how this school came to be, but at forty minutes I think they were correct to focus on the children and their harrowing stories. It is a simple film, well executed.

Secret Weapon: All those great kids! It's difficult to overstate the emotional impact of watch a kid go in the space of a year from a wide-eyed refugee completely lost in his surroundings to a student speaking fluent Hebrew and cracking jokes with his friends. I have no doubt that will be enough to get a lot of voters to mark their ballots right then and there. 

Marking Your Oscar Pool: Since all the films can lay claim to social significance - and since there is no World War II focused doc to break the tie - the usual Oscar method of choosing the most important-seeming film won't work here. I could easily see any of the five shorts taking the prize, but forced to predict I'm going to go with the film that would be getting my vote and say Poster Girl is going to barely edge out Strangers No More and Killing in the Name and take the Oscar. All the shorts make an impression but Poster Girl is the one that really gets your heart pumping. 

Part I - Animation

Part II - Live Action

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Reader Comments (8)

Thanks for doing these. So much to think about as we finalize Oscar predictions. And I really must see these.

although your description of POSTER GIRL reopening wounds makes me wonder about predicting it for the win. Maybe they'll want something a little easier to shake and feel great about like STRANGERS NO MORE?

February 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks Michael. These pieces on the shorts are invaluable. Not just for winning Oscar pools but they make the short awards that much more enjoyable to watch.

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I like them all, but my preference are in order that they were screened/listed in this article, with Strangers No More being my favorite. I think the academy will go for it as well; it's so well produced and has the cute kid, feel good factor too. Granted, how often does the Academy agree with me?

I'd also like to point out how great it is that 4 of the 5 are directed or co-directed by women. While women directors have always fared better with documentaries (probably even greater with shorts), it's still nice to point it out.

Ruby Yang, the director for Warriors of Qiugang (there's a typo in the article), already has an Oscar. If people already know that, maybe she'll be less likely to win.

I strongly encourage anyone who has the time/access/money to check these out!

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfbh

I give Poster Girl the slimmest edge because I think the determining factor is often which film provoked the biggest emotional response regardless if they are positive or negative emotions.

As for reopening wounds I mean that when Sgt. Murray expresses disenchantment with her mission in Iraq a lot of the audience is going to relate to her that much more strongly because they share some small fraction of her outrage.

That said, I would not be the least bit surprised if Strangers won. I wouldn't be surprised if any of these won. I stopped three women outside the theater to ask what they would cast there votes for if they had a ballot and I got three different responses.

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I saw the films this afternoon and think that the foreign language factor will play into things as well. I watched them in the order that Michael reviewed them here and the first three were a little boring. As much as I try to not let foreign language affect me, I think it had an influence in my reaction. When Poster Girl started, both the English-language factor and the "fellow American" factor made it instantly relate-able whereas the first three just weren't. Strangers No More wasn't all in English, but it felt very American at heart, too.

When you add in the fact that Strangers No More is the only uplifting one, I'd give it the win. After watching some depressing stuff, it was just what I wanted to see. I also think it had the sharpest narrative focus of the bunch.

February 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Michael C, thanks for these invaluable write-ups! The doc, live and animated shorts are always criminally ignored during Oscar season (except just moments before the envelope opens) so I'm overjoyed to see someone actually paying detailed attention to them and on a great film blog like this! They're such quality to discover.

I went out and saw the live action and animated shorts but the doc shorts are never playing anywhere nearby so I don't think I'll be catching them before the Big Night. I wish Oscar's youtube page or their own site would make them instantly available for people not in NY or LA, especially for the doc nominees since actually seeing them at a short film festival is rarely an option. HBO usually airs a handful within the year but that's kind of it. It's like they want them to remain unseen despite the honor of being recognized. Ah, well.

Again, thanks for these wonderful write-ups!

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Max - Glad you enjoyed it. This is the first year I've seen all the shorts prior to the ceremony and I plan to make a habit of it. It was well worth the time.

And if you really are determined to catch up with the shorts I'm pretty sure they hit iTunes today.

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Hi all, Warriors of Qiugang can be found exclusively on Yale Environment 360's page:

February 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Z
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