On Saturday night, I spent 7+ hours at the IFC Center overdosing on OSCAR-NOMINATED SHORT FILMS, an event that has become one of my favorite movie-watching traditions of the year! This year, aside from the Animated and Live Action nominees, I also saw the Documentary Shorts -- first time I have EVER seen any of these nominees in all the years I’ve been watching the Oscars. They cover some particularly heavy subject matter, which made for an exhausting 2½ hour program, but I’m excited to finally be able to make an educated guess in this category! Here are my reviews so you can, too:
INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD (USA) -- Not a bad film, but the problem is that director James Spione tries to cram what could have been at least two interesting full-length documentaries into 25 minutes. On one hand it tells the story of Ethan McCord, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq and now experiences post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the atrocities he witnessed there. One of those atrocities was the infamous incident in which a U.S. Apache helicopter opened fire and killed eleven civilians in Baghdad, including two journalists, a video of which was later released by WikiLeaks (thus putting that organization on the map). It’s also interesting to note that McCord eventually denounced the military’s practices and now gives talks on behalf of PTSD sufferers. There just isn’t enough time to give due respect to any of these threads and the result is a provocative but disjointed rush job.
SAVING FACE (Pakistan/
USA) -- In Pakistan, hundreds of women per year are attacked with acid, usually by their husbands, leaving their faces horribly scarred and disfigured. These attacks often go unreported, and even when the victims do try to seek justice, punishments are few and far between. But this doc from Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy follows several survivors as they attempt to rebuild their lives, including one whose infuriating case gains worldwide attention and, it is hoped, could help change the system. That story is fascinating and all the victims’ plights are treated with respect and dignity. But the film loses steam when it focuses on a renowned Pakistani-born plastic surgeon who returns home to help these women repair their faces -- an extremely noble cause, to be sure, but the guy is so pompous and self-aggrandizing that you kinda want to smack him upside the head before you thank him.
THE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM (Japan/USA) -- This film opens with incredibly harrowing depiction of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, using actual footage of a massive tidal wave hitting the Eastern coast. The camera holds steady as the water sweeps through a village, obliterating everything in its path and sending people running for higher ground. It is terrifying and I found myself filled with anxiety as the water, along with cars and entire houses, barreled closer & closer to the camera. From there, the film focuses on the recovery effort, using the cherry blossoms, which came into bloom about a month after the devastation, as a metaphor for human resiliency. Seems like an obvious parallel, but it is never manipulative, relying instead on the natural power of the imagery and events. Director Lucy Walker recites what is essentially a cinematic poem with beautiful cinematography, music and candid interviews with survivors. Well-crafted, potent and effective.
THE BARBER OF BIRMINGHAM: FOOT SOLDIER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT (USA) -- A touching portrait of James Armstrong, an 85-year-old African-American barber in Birmingham, Alabama who had been active in the Civil Rights movement since the ‘50s and lived to see Barack Obama elected President of the United States. His barbershop was a hub of sorts back in the day (Martin Luther King, Jr., himself would come in for a trim whenever he was in town) where the charismatic Armstrong would educate customers about the importance of the right to vote. Later, it continued to stand as a time capsule with newspaper clippings and photos covering the walls as Armstrong shared stories of his experiences as a “foot soldier” -- among other things, he served as flag bearer during the infamous Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The film’s strength occasionally wavers as co-directors Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin (who, sadly, died shortly before the film made its debut at Sundance) shift focus away from Armstrong, but it is nonetheless a nice tribute to a man who deserves recognition for his efforts.
I’M ROOTING FOR: Tsunami
WILL PROBABLY WIN: GOD IS THE BIGGER ELVIS, the one nominee that they couldn’t screen because of licensing reasons... so I’m sure it will win just to piss me off.
Stay tuned for ANIMATION DOMINATION!