This year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts get serious, in a good way. Here's a round-up.
Whether you're a crazed Oscar completist, a fan of short-form filmmaking, or just need a good emotional catharsis, the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts program (now playing in selected cities around the country) make quite the afternoon's worth of entertainment. Okay, "entertainment" might be pushing it. The doc shorts are generally the realm of Serious Issue movies, perhaps moreso than even the nominated documentary features. In recent years, the winners in the doc short category have been films about AIDS-afflicted orphans in China, same-sex partner benefits, cleft-palate surgery, and acid violence. This year's lineup was no exception to the heavy-subjects trend, but good filmmaking is its own reward, and you could do with some serious thought for once, you good-time Charlie!
Here are the films, in the order in which I saw them. They played in two parts, and I saw Program B (Redemption and Open Heart) before Program A. Not sure that makes a difference, experientially, but I can't lie, I was a bit emotionally spent by the time Inocente came along.
Moving geographically from Times Square to the outer boroughs of New York City, Alpert and O'Neill's short takes a look at the subculture of "Canners," people who collect cans around the city to redeem at five cents apiece and eke out some kind of a living. The filmmakers effectively take advantage of the short form to delve into the particulars of one subculture in the great Homeless Issue. They do a fine job of illuminating a handful of characters without giving the audience the feeling like they're being mugged for tears.
Open Heart (Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern)
There is one hospital in all of Africa, one center for cardiovascular surgery that will offer life-saving procedures for children with heart defects, free of charge. The film (supported by the Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund), follows a handful of children from Rwanda who travel (sans parents) to the Sudan to get their operations. Half human-interest tale, half-political statement about the necessity for top-notch medical care for everyone, the film avoids feeling like a 60 Minutes segment by virtue of its uncommon access (right inside the heart operations!) and how comfortable the children become around the cameras and each other.
Kings Point (Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider)
After the heavy subjects of homelessness and child heart surgery, Kings Point appeared to be a nice change of pace, following a group of seniors living the expat life at a retirement community in Florida. Watch Frank juggle his girlfriend Bea and dance partner Jane! Chuckle at Gert's blunt assessment of the dating life at Kings Point! But things take a turn for the somber in the latter third, as the realities of age, loneliness, and mortality rear their heads. As a bait-and-switch, it's an effective one.
Mondays at Racine (Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan)
If you're looking for a good cathartic cry, this is the film for you. The audience I was with reacted audibly throughout the entire 40 minutes. The focus of the short is a beauty salon in Long Island. One day a month, the sisters who own the place offer free-of-charge services to breast-cancer patients. The film earns its tears, getting honest and personal stories from the handful of women it focuses on and employing a smart structure that turns the special salon days when women come in to get their hair sheared off into meaningful landmarks. I would think the emotional connection with the film's protagonists will make the film tough to beat on Oscar night.
Inocente (Sean Fine and Andrea Nix)
As the day's final short, it was probably a bit unfair that Inocente's subject matter (teen homelessness) felt almost like a punchline after a day full of cancer and heart disease and death. The MTV-produced film has a youthful focus but doesn't feel jazzed-up for TV like you might expect. Inocente is a teen artist whose family is constantly on the move, from one place where they can't make rent to another. The artistic motif if an obvious one, but no less effective, and you're most certainly going to be drawn in by Inocente's quiet soulfulness.