Oscar's mea culpa
Be warned: It won’t be easy taking all five of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts in one gulp. That is, unless your idea of a good time involves a movie about Rwandan children with heart disease, and one about a homeless San Diego teenager, and one about New York City’s weary homeless can-and-bottle scavengers, and one about women in Long Island losing their breasts and their hair to cancer, and one about lonely disappointed elderly people waiting out their final days in a Florida retirement resort. In which case, we’ve got just the quintuple-feature for you.
It is safe to say that outside of animation, the nominated shorts tend not to be comedies. This is the cinema of social consciousness, to an almost punitive degree; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ selection process in these less glamorous categories seems at least partially intended as some kind of mea culpa. In the dramatic shorts, that usually means good intentions in longer supply than genuine tension, and character sympathy stoked less by skilled dramatics than by the emotional residue of First World privilege guilt. It also means a real risk of being upstaged by the heart-wrenching realities of their documentary counterparts. Neither technically nor narratively showy, the latter at least have the great advantage of being true.
As Open Heart informs us, rheumatic heart disease is easily preventable with antibiotics and it is virtually banished in the United States, but it’s still a leading cause of death for children in Africa. For the handful of afflicted Rwandan kids we meet in Kief Davidson’s film, the only hope is one dangerously underfunded free clinic in faraway Sudan. Davidson has a lot to deal with, and the film sometimes loses coherence, but it’s not hard to connect emotionally with several frightened young patients and especially the one fed-up surgeon who barks about his many frustrations, advises patience even as his own runs out, and tries to unwind after cardiac operations by stepping outside for a smoke.
Another imperiled-child picture, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s Inocente is a warm and vibrant but nonetheless haunting introduction to a homeless 15-year-old girl—whose first name, from which the film’s title derives, couldn’t be more poignantly apt. By her own account “a girl who likes to jump in puddles and likes flowers,” she’s also an aspiring painter, and within the bright colors of her art we glimpse a plea for salvation from a very difficult upbringing.
In Redemption, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill identify an odd byproduct of conspicuous consumption in a devastated economy: New York City’s increasingly competitive can-and-bottle-recycling racket. As exemplified by Alpert and O’Neill’s soundtrack—from the sauntering “New York, New York” played over shots of homeless gleaners gathering cans in Times Square, to the Crown Heights Rasta guy arriving at a recycling center to the tune of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”—the tone here is judiciously ironic. How could it not be?
Nearby, meanwhile, at the Long Island beauty salon in Mondays at Racine, two sisters set aside extra time and tireless support for women coping with chemotherapy. Having seen their own mother’s struggle with cancer, and in particular the havoc it wreaked on her self-esteem, the sisters’ sense of dedication is palpable. So is the fortitude displayed by their clientele, a diverse group of women whose camaraderie becomes a highly effective support system. Director Cynthia Wade builds a strong rapport with her vulnerable subjects.
Similarly, Kings Point is Bay Area filmmaker Sari Gilman’s group portrait of the Florida retirement home at which her own grandmother once lived. This isn’t the place to look for reassuring bromides about riding off into the sunset of life. Gilman’s subjects aren’t just adorably wrinkly wisdom dispensers; they’re people, with wounds and worries, who’ve lived long enough to speak very frankly about the hardships of human connection.
Clearly, there’s pathos to be had calling out discrepancies between the way our world is and the way we wish it would be. Documentaries needn’t be very long to be good at that.