Film Review: Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Shorts 2013

Among the five nominees in the Academy’s Documentary Shorts category, there are three skillfully executed shorts, of which one, “Kings Point,” marks a directorial debut.

“Inocente” (USA, 30 Mins.)
“Inocente” is directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, the husband-and-wife team of “War/Dance,” nominated in the Oscar Documentary Shorts category in 2007. The earlier film follows child victims of the wars in Uganda who are transformed by their participation in a music contest. In “Inocente,” the couple filmed closer to home, focusing on a similar transformational experience in the life of a Mexican-American teenager profoundly affected by violence and homelessness. Their eponymous subject is a budding artist and a shy yet articulate young California woman more comfortable recalling her dreams than her past. As Inocente’s story unfolds, we learn a great deal about the plight of disenfranchised children in America, but also about the sad reality of this teenager’s predicament.

Fine and Nix do an excellent job of illustrating the array of problems that lead to physical and psychological displacement. The latter is the real subject of the short, since it lies at the core of the familial abuse which haunts Inocente. Her mother was a pregnant teenager when she entered the U.S. illegally; estranged from her violent husband, she now struggles to provide for her family. While it seems that we enter Inocente’s life during a significant turning point, the filmmakers, to their credit, make clear that their subject’s future is far from assured. Too much screen time is devoted to the nonprofit arts organization that fostered Inocente’s talent, but this is a minor flaw in a sensitive portrayal of a teenager who, in order to face the world each day, dons a different mask of her own making.

“Kings Point” (USA, 39 Mins.)
Director Sari Gilman begins “Kings Point” with close-ups of elderly women’s lips, not a conventionally beautiful sight. These shots comprise a frank statement about the surprisingly forthright milieu we are about to enter, one that the filmmaker settles us into quickly and skillfully. Guessing from the dedication at the end of the short, Gilman had a relative at Kings Point, the condominium village in Florida where her five subjects live. Their colorful homes and the grassy knolls that surround them represented an escape from a crime-ridden city, New York in the 1970s, at a time when these elderly denizens were contemplating retirement. Now, it is the place where they expect to die.

Gilman, a film and broadcast editor, keeps things moving in a short that is sometimes difficult to watch—and not because the four women and one man she portrays are initially frail or dying. Younger viewers are likely to wince as Mollie, Gert and Jane voice their candid observations on love and sex in senescence, and when Bea jealously guards Frank, her ambivalent lover, but especially when Frank ends the relationship, admitting that he fears having to bury another wife. Some of the women express regrets over moving to Florida, but for the most part what we see are a group of people who confront their loneliness in this suburban outpost with aplomb. Their own deaths, and those of their friends, are met with an equanimity that Gilman finds surprising, and that she wisely gives us time to appreciate.

“Mondays at Racine” (USA, 39 Mins.)
Cynthia Wade’s portrait of Racine, a suburban New York spa that sets aside a day a month for breast cancer patients, is a tearjerker, yet it is never melodramatic. Like Gilman’s film, “Mondays at Racine” is a standout among this year’s nominees. While the short would have benefitted from additional editing, it is nevertheless riveting, especially for those unfamiliar with the everyday reality of being a cancer patient. Rachel and Cynthia, the owners of Racine, offer their services free of charge and, for head shaving, they provide a healing circle of others with bald pates. Several of their clients are the primary subjects in “Mondays at Racine.”

Wade, who works primarily as a documentary cinematographer, was given surprising access to the women’s private lives. They speak candidly about sex with their spouses, and their shifting self-image, as the cancer vitiates their feminine identity. Wade interviews spouses, too, although our guides throughout are the women themselves. As a way of including a wider variety of people, and as a pause from the longer, more emotionally wrenching interviews with her primary subjects, Wade does quick takes of couples discussing the challenges they face after the diagnosis, and especially during chemotherapy. She has a knack for these intimate snapshots, which often seem to impart the entire history of a relationship.

In the midst of all the pathos in “Mondays at Racine,” it becomes apparent that Wade’s emotional attachment to her subjects never compromises her journalistic integrity. The skill necessary to effectively balance these very different impulses is rare in documentary filmmaking, and difficult to quantify in a critique. It is only felt afterward, and upon reflection. Wade effectively stays out of the way of the audience’s brief encounters with the women. She continually focuses on their humanity, refusing to make symbols of them, yet her methods transform them into teachers of a sort, as they obviously were for her as well.

“Open Heart” (USA, 39 Mins.)
“Open Heart” is an important human-rights documentary which, unfortunately, quickly spins out of control, leaving its child subjects behind. Writer-director Kief Davidson co-wrote and directed The Devil’s Miner, an excellent feature documentary about child miners; it picked up a DGA nomination and a prize at Hot Docs in 2006. In this short, he again profiles young people in dire circumstances, a group of Kenyans whose hearts were damaged by rheumatic fever. There were no antibiotics to treat them during the outbreak of their illness; such drugs are rare in rural Africa. A local doctor, one of Davidson’s subjects in the short, is able to get the children admitted to a Sudanese charity hospital that performs open-heart surgery.

“Open Heart” begins with several touching scenes in which the children are profiled along with their parents, who must decide whether to send them on the dangerous and difficult journey from Kenya to Sudan. Angelique, a small, frail girl, becomes the star of the group of eight in part because she’s the youngest, but also because her wide-eyed stare is emblematic of the children’s vulnerability. After the group arrives at the hospital to prepare for their heart surgery, “Open Heart” becomes an ad for the medical institution and its financial woes. While these problems may endanger the Kenyan doctor’s ability to save other children, the audience, already educated to the looming crisis, wants to see the children with their remade hearts which, Angelique says, make sounds like the grasshopper in her garden.

“Redemption” (USA, 35 Mins.)

The title of this short refers to the bottles and cans redeemed by the subjects profiled in the documentary, all unemployed New Yorkers. Co-directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill are experienced broadcast journalists, and Alpert was nominated in this category in 2010 for “The Tears of Sichuan Province.” “Redemption” identifies a broad spectrum of gleaners, even one middle-class woman who collects and redeems in order to supplement her fixed income. We learn very little about her life, or that of the other subjects in the documentary, and the filmmakers provide no context for their labors. In fact, Alpert and O’Neill do little more than point the camera. “Redemption” cannot even be called a human-rights documentary because it has no viewpoint at all.

The shorts reviewed here are being shown as two programs. Program A includes “Inocente,” “Kings Point” and “Mondays at Racine.” Program B consists of “Open Heart” and “Redemption.”