Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012: Documentary

Saving Face and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom are the highlights of this compilation of newly Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.

If investigative journalism, the distinguishing characteristic of the documentary form, goes mostly unrecognized by the Motion Picture Academy, one could make the argument that this reflects the tastes of the general public. Traditionally, the Academy shies away from controversy. (This same nominating committee ignored two of the year’s best documentary features: You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo by Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez, and Nostalgia for the Light by Chilean Patricio Guzmán.) Uplifting “documentaries” that advocate, or that lionize an individual or their work, are the rule here.

This is the one category among the “short subjects” where the work of women filmmakers is well-represented. Of the nominees, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom by Lucy Walker, and Saving Face by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, are notable for their research and objectivity. (I cannot comment on nominee God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is not included in this compilation because of “licensing” problems.) From a cinematic point of view, they also represent the most accomplished shorts.

Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement (USA)
The eponymous subject of this 25-minute short is an 85-year-old African-American barber, James Armstrong, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, who was active in the civil-rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Had co-directors Gail Dolgin (nominated in 2003 for Daughter from Danang) and Robin Fryday explored that city’s racial past through Armstrong alone, Barber might have been a more cohesive film. (It is possible that Armstrong died during production.) Instead, there are a number of other interviews with equally compelling subjects that muddle the intent of the short, which seems to suddenly switch to a celebration of several “foot soldiers,” the unnamed thousands who integrated lunch counters and schools. Barber is a good primer on the African-American struggle for voting rights in Alabama, especially in its depiction of the nearly forgotten 1965 “Bloody Sunday” marches. It is a homage to its subjects, yet one cannot fault its timely reminders of how many died to make possible the election of an African-American to the White House.

Incident in New Baghdad (USA)
James Spione’s 25-minute short is ostensibly about Ethan McCord, an American soldier who rescued two children in the infamous U.S. Army helicopter attack in Baghdad in July 2007. Eleven unarmed civilians were killed, including two Reuters journalists. Classified black-and-white footage and audio from the cockpit, released to the media by WikiLeaks, is used repeatedly in the short, as are McCord’s color stills of the carnage. McCord, who was on patrol several blocks away, was ordered to the scene for search and rescue. Subsequently, haunted by the bloodied bodies of the children (who survived), he asked to see a psychiatrist; his commanding officer scoffed at the request. The ex-soldier now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and gives talks on the subject. (His blog appears on Michael Moore’s website.) In fact, this short could be his presentation, and should not be passed off as a documentary. Spione shamelessly exploits a horrific incident to lionize McCord, who thoughtfully carried out an order and was later psychologically damaged. A repetition of bloody images fails to recount that sad story which, in the hands of a journalist, would infer far-reaching implications for all our young men and women damaged by war.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (Japan/USA)
Lucy Walker’s 39-minute documentary is about the March 2011 Japanese tsunami in which over 15,000 people perished. It vividly depicts the worst devastation on the Eastern coast, beginning with footage of a tidal wave as it sweeps through a village. Typical of Walker’s work, the film is well-researched and includes surprisingly candid interviews. A month after the tsunami, cherry blossom season began, and was viewed by many Japanese as a fortuitous sign, a call to recovery. Walker’s theme, as in Waste Land (2011), nominated last year for best documentary feature, is human resiliency in the face of incredible loss. The “wasteland” in that film was a garbage dump in Brazil where many of her subjects worked; here it is a flat plain marred by mangled buildings where survivors pick through the remains. While Walker, a British-born filmmaker, uses music and artful touches in Tsunami, especially in the cherry blossom sequences, she never manipulates her viewers; instead, she trusts the power of her images and her subjects’ words. Walker’s talent lies in the intimacy she obviously establishes with people in dire circumstances, and in her ability to maintain that respectful distance necessary to portray the universal aspects of their experiences.

Saving Face (Pakistan/USA)
This documentary short is about Pakistani women who are disfigured by acid attacks, mostly carried out by their husbands and families. While the savagery often goes unreported, several brave women recount their stories in Saving Face, and one, Zakia, takes her case to court, garnering the attention of the legislature. The outcome of her actions are chronicled in this credible 40-minute short by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The women’s tales are tenderly and respectfully portrayed, although the filmmakers spend too much time on Dr. Jawad, a self-aggrandizing British plastic surgeon of Pakistani birth who operates on the victims. More interesting and less explored is the work of a heroic Pakistani lawyer, Sarkar Abbas; she represents Zakia and other acid-attack plaintiffs. Saving Face is Junge’s second documentary short nomination; his first was for The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner (2009). Thorough reportage and an unusual human-rights subject make this HBO short subject a worthy Oscar nominee.