Film Review: 2011 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Documentary

This year&#8217;s Oscar-nominated documentary short films (shown theatrically in two separate programs) lack the journalistic integrity one would expect in this category. One notable exception is <i>The Warriors of Qiugang</i>, an intriguing view of China

The documentary short subjects nominated for an Academy Award this year grapple with the problems of war veterans, Chinese villagers subjected to chemical pollution, victims of terror attacks, and refugees—children given asylum in Israel, and islanders forced to relocate because of the rising sea. Few of these films would past muster as journalism because all of them, to varying degrees, manipulate the viewer’s emotions with music, or lionize their subjects rather than produce a complicated picture of the issues they ostensibly explore. Rather than seeking some truth through the course of unfolding events, they begin with an agenda, and work to convince us of its veracity.

The most complicated topic among the five shorts is that of Muslims who refuse to speak out against Islamic extremists. It is the subject of Killing in the Name by Jed Rothstein, Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy. The documentary opens with stills and archival footage of the bloody aftermath of several terrorist attacks, funereal music underscoring the obvious and horrific toll of such violence. It then notes in an intertitle that over the past five years, 88,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in similar attacks. No source is cited. Next, the filmmakers’ hero appears, Ashraf Al-Khaled, a survivor of the 2005 hotel bombing in Amman, Jordan, and now an activist in the cause of getting Muslims to speak out against religious extremism. Ashraf and his wife Nadia were celebrating their wedding the night of that attack, and lost 27 members of their family. Ashraf is followed by the villain, Zaid, of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who planned the attack in Amman. Then it’s back to Ashraf, praying at the graves of his relatives.

This striking absence of objectivity is further complicated by the documentary’s contrived exchange between Ashraf and Zaid—Zaid refused to meet with Ashraf in person—and, later, Ashraf and the father of a suicide bomber. The father insists that his son, recruited by Zaid, was never an extremist and was brainwashed. To Ashraf and to the filmmakers, who are on the same mission, this is a typical instance of outright denial. Maybe it is, but because the filmmakers demonize the father, the conversation fulfills an agenda instead of getting us to the heart of the matter, which is the reason Muslims appear reluctant to address their religious right. By presenting two equally intense and emotional advocates, the lunatic fringe and the seemingly rational, observant Muslim, the documentary oversimplifies the issue it sets out to clarify, one that’s the Gordian knot of international relations with Islamic countries.

The “feel good” documentary among the five nominated shorts is Strangers No More by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon, members of the Academy and four-time Oscar nominees. It chronicles a year at an unusual Tel Aviv school which admits children from every corner of the world who are refugees in Israel. Heartwarming and celebratory, it’s likely to be an Academy favorite, especially this year when American sympathy for Israel is running high in the wake of Egypt’s political collapse. The school, staffed by exuberant teachers and a pragmatic principal, apparently does not ask about the legal status of the students or their parents, many of whom have escaped internecine warfare and genocide. We hear a good deal about teacher commitment, and witness many acts of kindness, but what we don’t learn about the school is bothersome.

For instance, recruitment and the goals of the school and its curriculum are never adequately explained. Students must learn Hebrew, and while that is the official language, it is hardly one that prepares them for life anywhere else. Aside from the obvious intent to foster tolerance, we learn nothing of the other subjects the students study, as we have only glimpses of classroom instruction. These are interspersed with interviews with the children, who are wonderful, but it is difficult to shake the feeling that what we are watching is a well-produced commercial. Lost in the high-pitched emotions of Strangers No More is analysis; what we want to know is why this school appears to accomplish what other educational institutions in developed countries fail to achieve with student populations that are less diverse and perhaps less exposed to violence than this one.

The most surprising, and the best of the five documentary short subjects, is The Warriors of Qiugang. It chronicles the struggle of Chinese villagers poisoned by a factory that suddenly appears in their midst. While the score punctuates every dramatic moment, the director Ruby Yang and writer Thomas Lennon, previous winners in this category for The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006), have produced a documentary that follows this David-and-Goliath battle succinctly and with journalistic integrity. The townspeople are not exalted; instead, their natural dignity surfaces in a few simply photographed moments. That distance maintained by the filmmakers allows the audience to remain squarely focused on the enormous task confronting the villagers and, by extension, China itself.

An excellent example of the way in which Yang and Lennon create that comprehensive portrait is in the sequence devoted to a conference in Beijing, sponsored by an environmental organization. The man who becomes the leader of Qiugang’s quest to evict the factory attends that meeting. He also visits Tiananmen Square, which is just opposite one of the gates of the Forbidden City. It’s an unexpected event, noted briefly, which the filmmakers use as a cinematic metaphor for the progress of China’s civilization and the spirit of its people.

Such skillful cinematic representation is not evinced in the other short documentary about environmental disaster, Sun Come Up, by Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger. It is the story of Carteret islanders forced to relocate because of rising seas. We take to the road with the young members of a tribe in search of land, and learn nothing about what’s being left behind, namely the old folks who embody a disappearing culture.

As to the unfolding natural disaster, the short makes only a vague reference to global warming, and no mention of the history of the atoll, or the endemic forces that continually transform these islands. It is hard to say whether Sun Come Up is another documentary with an agenda—to indict the government of Papua, New Guinea that appears indifferent to the islanders’ plight—or just an example of inept filmmaking. The same can be said of Sara Nelson’s Poster Girl, which takes aim at our government’s treatment of American veterans of the Iraqi War through the travails of Robyn Murray. Unfortunately, Murray enjoys her victimization a tad too much, and Nelson has no journalistic instincts. She simply allows the former sergeant a 38-minute rant, interrupted by a few intertitles which explain the government’s mishandling of her disability claim. Witnessing Murray’s heartrending mental distress first-hand is not effective, and never leads to the question Nelson wants Americans to ask themselves: Is this an acceptable sacrifice?