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
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.