Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts, by Patrick Felton
It seems that over time, the Documentary Shorts category of the Academy Awards has become a bit of a checklist. Indeed, this year like many other, the category seems to be dominated by a laundry list of serious-minded yet emotionally wrought films about “serious” topics. Sub Saharan Africa, poverty, homelessness, cancer – these are topics that should by no means be asked to be made into easy sits, nor should they be expected to be cold and clinical.
While these illuminations can feel enlightening, this approach can often do a disservice to its subjects. By drawing awareness to the negative elements, it separates the audience from the ability to connect with the subject. Visual elements can often linger on the bleak realities of poverty often void of life and color Treatment of the subject as pitiable creates a psychic wall of “otherness” between the world of the viewer and the world of the subject. Finally, these portrayals often rob their subjects of agency in the process of social mobility, as a helpless subject tends to be more emotionally compelling.
For better or for worse, this year’s bunch seem to typify this trend with overwhelming waves of well-crafted sentimentality. However, within these films exist surprising and unexpected glimpses of humanity that give meaning to the pathos. At their best, these films subvert the audience expectations of approaches to poverty, death, and even life itself.
Inocente acts as a counterbalance to such portrayals, shining light on a single individual who strives to improve their situation. Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (The team behind the Oscar nominated documentary feature War/Dance), Inocente chronicles the story of a San Diego youth of 15 years who has spent the last 9 years without a home. Struggling with a history of abuse, the constant reality of homelessness and her attempts to conceal her situation from her schoolmates, Inocente finds a surprising outlet through ARTS, a San Diego nonprofit dedicated to providing, supporting, and advocating for arts programs that heal, inspire, and empower youth facing adversity. With the help of ARTS Inocente discovers her own formidable talents as a visual artist which begin to manifest themselves both as a tool for self-healing and also as a potential path out of her current situations.
Inocente may be the single most upbeat film about homelessness ever made. This isn’t because of any punches pulled by the filmmakers. Rather, because the titular subject is so full of life and determination, her tenacious life force radiates through every frame of the film. The filmmakers wisely use the Inocente’s vibrant and colorful art to punctuate the deep emotional wounds with a sense of palpable optimism. The film seems to be making the case for the healing power of heart.
This is not to say the film isn’t without heartbreak and or distance from hardship. The film gives ample voice to the unique challenges facing Inocente and her family. As someone who has also often wondered where his next meal was coming from before, this film affected me on a deep level precisely because it didn’t focus on the trials ot the present, but rather on the hope for the future.
Compare this with the high aspirations of the ham-fisted Redemption. Directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, Redemption follows numerous homeless and low income New Yorkers in a growing activity known as “canning.” Canning is the process by which individuals collect large amounts of discarded aluminum and plastic bottles and cans and redeem them at recycling centers for small profits.
The film’s aspirations of social awareness and commentary are high. However, so often it seems to fall into the cliches of exploitation often seen in documentaries about the poor. The filmmakers seem to have an uncanny ability to find the most unkempt toothless representations of New York’s homeless, and the inclusion of a sequence in which an old Jewish woman has her cans stolen by a “crafty” Asian woman seems to be of questionable taste.
However, it is when Redemption begins to foreground its social commentary that the film becomes truly problematic. A sequence in which a canner looks into a rich Grammarcy Park restaurant and comments on the numerous wealthy young males seems to imply an inherent wrongness of youth with means, and the final shot of a homeless canner pushing a shopping cart up Wall Street fails to carry the intended metaphorical weight.
This would not be as much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the film had so carefully positioned itself initially as a cinema veritie style slice of life examination of the canning subculture. The dirty handheld aesthetic seems to beg the audience to laud the film for its authenticity, even as the filmmakers make more and more deliberately staged shots (particularly in the Grammercy Park sequence). It is almost as if the filmmakers do not trust the audience to care about the plight of these New Yorkers unless it is framed as a fist-pumping indictment of capitalism voiced by those lowest on the food chain.
Even in this problematic film, the occasional moment of emotional potency emerges. When Susan, a displaced former computer programmer is beaten to some bottles by another canner, a third, paternal canner challenges her to see the positive in the experience. Another sequence shows a young latina canner working as hard as she can to try to provide for her children.
Of all of the docs in contention this year, Mondays at Racine may pack the most devastating emotional punch. Directed by Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan, Mondays at Racine profiles Racine, Long Island beauty salon which opens its door once a month to breast cancer patients free of charge. The owners behind Racine are two sisters which quite engaging personalities. The film’s finest moments focus on their work helping cancer patients and survivors feel pretty.
The film ultimately uses the salon itself as a framing device to examine the lives of the cancer patients as they try to keep their lives together while undergoing chemotherapy, dealing with subsequent hair loss, fighting to keep their families together, sometimes losing. The access that the filmmakers get into the lives of these women is astonishing. Many women come on camera at their weakest both in and out of their wigs. The level of rawness and emotional honesty that each of the interviewees comes with gives a face to the dark realities of cancer that are not talked about. This film never pours over into exploitation and relentlessly leaves the audience with a sense of empowerment, partly due to the sisters, partly due to the determination of the women in the chairs.
Surprisingly, the film’s most heartbreaking and touching moments are back in the salon chairs at Racine, where heads are shaved. In the film, this becomes a dual act of surrender and defiance. Women are surrendering to the reality that they are losing their hair to Chemo, but they are also shaving their heads to have control over it. As we watch grown women weep, we also see a dissonant grace point from the two sisters, ever supportive and compassionate in trying to help these individuals who feel defined by their illness feel like a woman again.
Open Heart pulls at the heartstrings in a more literal sense. (one sequence features graphic open heart surgery on an 8 year old). Directed by Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern, Open Heart is arguably the most formally impressive of the five nominees. Open Hearts tells the story of eight Rwandan youth who suffer from a condition known as Rhumatic Heart Disease. According the the film, this disease which has been almost irradiated in the western world will kill 300,000 Africans annually. With the help of Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, Rwanada’s only professional cardiologist, eight youth with particularly serious cases of the heart disease. However, this will require them to leave their country and everything they know for up to 6 weeks for dangerous surgery.
Open Heart documents the 8 Rwandans as they travel with Dr. Rusingiza to Salam Center in Sudan, the only free cardiac center in Africa.
More than any other of the documentaries Open Heart takes advantage of its exotic locations rather than wallowing in the images of poverty associated with the region. Instead, this documentary methodically plots out the journey of our 8 protagonists, their emotional travel from their homeland to Sudan, the tension-filled surgery preparation, the surgery itself, and recovery.
Most of the films most powerful moments come from the very real stakes of the surgery. Images of the process of installing a artificial pulmonary valve on young Angelique are upsetting, not only because of how explicit they are, but also because of their juxtaposition to comments from an all to pessimistic surgical staff.
“It was a shit heart when we started, and its going to be a shit heart when we’re finished. We just have to hope it heals”
Perhaps what sets Open Heart apart is its thoughtful balance between pathos and ethos. We are firmly put into the camp of the group of 8 seeking life-saving treatment, but we are also given context to the larger health issues at play. Much of this comes from interviews with Gino Strada, the Italian doctor which founded the non profit Emergency and help create the Salam Center. Dr. Strada is a staunch advocate for “right to treatment” and many of the film’s most revealing moments come from his interactions with the camera, and with his fellow doctors. One astonishing moment in which Strada comes face to face with Sudanese president Bashir reveals the stark realities of trying to provide free medical service. When Bashir suggests that private equity may turn the hospital into a successful for-profit endeavor, a tense back and forth leads to a sort of stalemate, which appears to leave the hospital’s future in doubt.
The outlier in this years competition appears to be the enigmatic and prickly Kings Point, Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider’s intermittently touching and upsetting portrait of the citizens of a Florida retirement community. It is still quite unusual to see such focused portraits of a subculture of people who seem to be killing time until they die.
Much like Redemption, the portrait that Kings Point paints of this community seems to reaffirm more of the stereotypical cultural assumptions about Florida retirees than it debunks. At its best, it becomes a complex study of the complex social stratification of in-groups among people who have outlived most of their friends. At its worst, it can feel like an MTV reality series, full of angst, cattiness, and conflict.
This is not to say that Kings Point is without artistic merit. The sentiments of loss, frustration, emotional and spiritual ambivalence that its subjects articulate is often shocking in its frankness. When one retiree breaks up with his girlfriend because he is worried about outliving her, its devastating.
Much of the film’s surprise power comes from an epilogue which chronicles the deaths of most of the subjects of the film.