2012 Nominated Documentary Short Films
Short Subject Documentary always seemed like the strangest category in the Academy Awards. How are they any different than an episode of Nightline? To be fair, I hadn’t given them much of a look as they’re usually among the most difficult to get to see (All the nominated shorts will open in more than 200 theaters nationwide on February 10 (http://theoscarshorts.shorts.tv/locations.php) – ed.), but I always seemed to count them out as things I’d never watch and probably wouldn’t seek out, not for the fault of the filmmaker, but the nature of the format. This year, I got to see four of the five nominated short documentaries and found them to be among the most moving films of the year, regardless of format. All four films depicted hardship, sadness, political or social unrest, and human atrocities, but also a sense of hope for the future. Each one felt like a gut punch and introduced amazing people you’d likely never see on Nightline.
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
Dir. Robin Fryday – 18 minutes
The shortest of the films, this features a look at Mr. Armstrong, an 85 year old barber from Birmingham, AL on the eve of President Obama’s election. Alabama, and Birmingham in particular, was one of hot bellies of social unrest in the 50s and 60s as African Americans demanded the right to vote. Constitutionally, they were allowed to, but in the South, the registrars made it nearly impossible for them to even register much less actually get the opportunity to fill out a ballot. People like Mr. Armstrong were known as “foot soldiers” in the civil rights movement because they would march or congregate every day on the steps of the courthouse or other public buildings for the cause, often to the detriment of their livelihoods. On the wall of his barber shop is an enormous collage of photos, news clippings, and flyers throughout his involvement which people are seen commenting on. It’s a pretty good little film with a good message. It’s a little muddy about which story it’s trying to tell, but the testimonials, and in some cases footage, of other such foot soldiers who were beaten and arrested on multiple occasions by white police officers are undeniably poignant.
Incident in New Baghdad
Dir. James Spione – 22 minutes
A former Army infantryman, Ethan McCord, tells his side of the tragic events in July 2007 in which U.S. Army helicopters opened fire on a group of mostly unarmed individuals, killing several and wounding many others, which resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists. The incident in question made headlines in the U.S. when footage of the attack was uncovered and McCord, who had been first to respond after the violence was finished, was forced to relive it. McCord also speaks about the Army’s deficiencies and how they failed to help him when he came to them about suffering PTSD. This is a film with a very definite point of view, that the Army acted wrongly and that they continue to do so, and while that’s a very incendiary position, it’s hard to argue with the amazing aerial footage presented in the film of the attack and the aftermath. As if one didn’t already know that war was horrible, this film does an excellent job of driving home this point.
Dir. Daniel Junge – 40 Minutes
This film sheds light on one of the most infuriating and heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard of. In Pakistan, nearly 100 people a year, mostly women, are the victims of acid attacks. Generally these attacks involve a husband, boyfriend, or suitor throwing acid in the face of their respective female counterparts as a result of anger or perceived shameful behavior. The film talks to a number of women who’ve been horribly disfigured facially by battery acid or other highly corrosive chemical. One poor woman simply turned down a man’s marriage proposal. The film focuses mainly on a mother of two named Zakia whose second husband threw acid at her when she filed for divorce, horribly scarring the entire left side of her face causing her to never leave the house without wearing a burqa and dark sunglasses. The men in these cases are almost always acquitted. Zakia’s husband and some other men accused of acid throwing vehemently denied their involvement, but nevertheless claim the women got what they deserved. Part of the film discusses the victims and politicians as they try to pass a mandatory life sentence for convicted acid attackers while the other focuses on a London-based Pakistani plastic surgeon who has returned to his home country to aid these women and attempt to repair their damaged faces. This was an incredibly effective film. I boiled with anger almost immediately and the more I listened to the plight of these poor women, who to many men in Pakistan are still seen as property, the more it bubbled. The ending of this film is supremely satisfying and elicited an involuntary noise from me.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Dir. Lucy Walker – 39 minutes
This might have been my favorite of the four, strictly speaking in filmic terms. It’s a sad and beautiful look at a Japanese village hit hardest by the recent tsunami on March 11th, 2011. Beginning with some truly astonishing and terrifying home video footage of the waves crashing into the little town and the people trying to outrun it, the film picks up three months later and speaks to survivors, some of whom lost everything. One particularly moving testimonial comes from an older man who breaks down while discussing how one of his oldest friends was killed and how his body had still not been found. On top of the destruction and being uprooted, the people also have to deal with the threat of radiation the tsunami kicked up from hitting a nearby nuclear power plant. Through this, the film also discusses Japan’s inexorable ties to the cherry blossom, or sakura. The trees represent many things to the Japanese people, not the least of which is how ancient and stalwart these trees are. One man who is the caretaker of the national cherry blossom forest in Tokyo says how his ancestors have taken care of the trees for 300 hundred years and talks about them like they’re his own children. Every year people come from all over to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, however the annual festival has been canceled this year in light of the tragedy, which left hundreds of people without food, power, or heat. Still, the inhabitants of the ravaged areas see the cherry blossoms, which already begin to re-grow soon after the tsunami see the trees as a source of hope and that, like the cherry blossoms when the leaves fall from the branches, there is beauty even in death. Another heartbreaking film, but undeniably beautiful and affecting.
The final film, which I didn’t see, was entitled God is the Bigger Elvis which I bet was upbeat and fun, and will also probably be the one to win given the nature of how things work. However, these four films are truly remarkable and worth seeing. Maybe don’t watch them all in a row like I did unless you’ve got time for a couple hours of melancholy introspection.