Sunday, February 17, 2013

REVIEW: 2013 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

There aren’t many things that could have gotten to me to leave the house the day after a blizzard -- but last Saturday, my annual marathon of Oscar-Nominated Short Films at the IFC Center was one of them. This activity has quickly become one of my favorite movie-watching traditions of the year, right up there with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on Easter weekend and 24 hours of A CHRISTMAS STORY. My day began with the Documentary Shorts, which were split into two programs, totaling nearly 3 1/2 exhausting hours; fortunately, they were generally quite strong and tapped into a variety of emotions. Let’s take a look....

kings-pointKINGS POINT (USA) -- This is the true story of a bunch of senior citizens living together in a Florida retirement community -- find out what happens when they stop being polite and start getting real! Yes, on the surface, this 39-minute entry that focuses on the lives on several retirees (all former New Yorkers) at the Kings Point resort does feel like The Real World: The Golden Years, with all the humor, gossip, cliques and drama you’d expect. But as the layers are peeled back and we learn more about each person’s life, a much deeper story emerges about humanity’s desire for independence, our need for acceptance and ultimately resigning ourselves to the realities of the aging process. The group on which director Sari Gilman chooses to focus are eclectic and more than willing to share their stories and feelings with a mix of exuberance and melancholy. My personal favorite is Frank, an outgoing gent who enjoys female companionship but doesn’t want to get too close. At first, he comes off as a bit of a playboy, leaving broken hearts in his wake -- until he reveals that the reason he can’t bring himself to commit is because he has already buried one wife and doesn’t want to have to do it again. Sad.

mondays-at-racineMONDAYS AT RACINE (USA) -- In this 39-minute film from director Cynthia Wade, we follow the lives of several women who are battling breast cancer and learn about the impact the disease has had on their bodies, and psyches, as well as their families and personal relationships. Their stories are tied together by a Long Island beauty salon called Racine, run by two sisters who offer free services to women dealing with the effects of chemotherapy and hair loss. Their goal, on the third Monday of every month, is to help these women regain their confidence and dignity, while also giving them a place to meet & talk to each other. The result is both gut-wrenching and heartwarming, to say the least. If there’s one knock against the film, it’s that it doesn’t spend quite enough time in the actual salon; in fact, you could remove that framing device altogether and it wouldn’t lose any impact. But it’s still, obviously, great that the place exists, and the individual stories are extremely moving and more than make up for any cinematic shortcomings.

inocenteINOCENTE (USA) -- I really wanted to like this portrait of a homeless teenage girl who finds salvation and survival through art. Fifteen-year-old Inocente has been living on the streets and in various shelters in San Diego with her mother and siblings for nine years. But instead of succumbing to her dark childhood and seemingly-bleak surroundings, she focuses all of her energies into creating canvases that explode with color and passion. Directed by Sean Fine & Andrea Nix, the 39-minute film is told from Inocente’s perspective, in her own words, often accompanied by striking close-ups of her painted face, which achieves a sense of poetry and wisdom beyond her years. Unfortunately, the film also feels a tad manipulative and somewhat lacking in depth. Not to take anything away from Inocente’s struggles, but she seems like a very well-adjusted young woman, and while we are TOLD about some truly horrific things she has had to deal with, we never really SEE anything worse than her mother refusing to sign a permission slip. On one hand, this is a testament to her own strength and ability to overcome adversity and put it behind her -- but as a documentary, it feels somewhat incomplete.

|  courtesy Shorts International<br />New Yorkers find treasure in the trash in REDEMPTION (USA) -- If you’ve spent any time in New York City, you’ve probably seen them but may not have given them much thought: People combing through the trash and carting around giant bags of empty cans and bottles, presumably to redeem them for a nickel apiece. In this 35-minute film, directors Jon Alpert & Matthew O’Neill follow some particularly memorable and charismatic members of this ever-growing legion, letting them tell their stories and offer insight into how the whole thing works, how they interact and feud with each other, and most of all, how they manage to survive in this rough economic climate. Even for a born & bred, self-involved New Yorker who is only peripherally aware of such subcultures, it’s interesting to see it in the forefront -- and frightening to think about how quickly such a lifestyle could become reality.

openheartOPEN HEART (USA) -- If you are a child battling rheumatic heart disease in Rwanda, the odds are stacked against you. The one hospital in all of Africa that offers free cardiac surgery is located 2,500 miles away, and only a select few children are fortunate enough to get there. Director Kief Davidson presents a two-pronged story: First, it follows eight children who are chosen to leave their families and make this long, life-or-death journey. Second, it is a plea to ensure that this treatment continues to remain available. The doctors at the privately-run, state-of-the-art Salam Center, located in the Sudanese desert, led by Dr. Gino Strada, work tirelessly to save as many lives as possible, while negotiating with the government for funding and support. There’s a lot of information crammed into 39 minutes that might have been better served as a feature film -- in particular I would have liked to know more about Dr. Strada, a blunt and outspoken Italian who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to talk back to no less than Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. As it stands, you can’t fault the film for focusing more on the kids, which it does well and, naturally, packs an emotional punch.

Kings Point, the most well-rounded (and entertaining, despite its innate sadness) of the bunch.
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Open Heart, for the double-whammy of emotional impact and humanitarian importance.

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