One thing becomes very clear when watching the two programs' worth of short documentary films nominated for the Academy Award this year: The cut-off length to be considered a short is forty minutes. All five come in within two minutes of that length, and it suggests that, to a certain extent, either the filmmakers are playing to the awards or the rules give films that length a strong advantage in the nominating process.
Some of these films could, perhaps, be a little longer, but unless they get up to eighty minutes or so, they're not going to be programmed as features on their own. Get up into the thirty-five to forty minute range, though, and your film isn't just part of a short film package at a festival, it's anchoring it. There's probably also some bias toward longer films within this particular shorts category: This much on screen represents a great deal of work done and a certain weight to the subject that a ten-minute film might not, rightly or wrongly. And for a filmmaker passionate about his or her subject, this nomination is likely the best chance to get their film seen. It's probably also not a bad length if you're looking at public television as the most likely sales destination; it fits nicely in an hour-long timeslot, with room for the anthology series's credits, an introduction, and maybe an interview with the filmmaker or a follow-up piece.
Whatever the reasons for there being so little variation in the length of the pieces nominated for the award this year, all five groups of filmmakers have created worthy films, packing interesting information and true-life stories into a compact running time. Each is strong enough that I must imagine the voting will be close. The nominees, in the order presented, are:
"Killing in the Name"
"Killing in the Name" opens by reminding us that, though the western world frequently thinks of Muslims as the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, the vast majority of the 88,000 victims of such attacks over the past five years were also Muslims. This film focuses on one, Ashraf Al-Khaled, who along with his wife lost 27 family members when a suicide bomber targeted the hotel in Amman, Jordan where his wedding reception was being held. Since then, he has traveled the world, advocating against terror within the Muslim community.
It's a worthy subject, and one whose details perhaps might be worthy of expansion in a feature - a segment about a one-time conspirator in a large attack in Bali, Indonesia who testified against his group's leaders and is attempting to "de-radicalize" former compatriots is interesting, but the glimpse we see is all too brief. Perhaps more problematically, the narration describes this man as one of Indonesia's most potent weapons against terror, but what we see is not a man making headway. Admittedly, it's likely a long process, perhaps not suited to a short that has other concerns.
Or maybe we're supposed to despair; while this film is made with the participation of Ashraf's foundation, the message often seems to be what an uphill battle those who want peace face over their progress. We're confronted by several groups and individuals, including an Amman recruiter for Al-quaeda, who are unnerving for their calmness and certainty. I suspect that it ends up being somewhat less inspirational than it intends to be, although it is a calm, fairly clear-eyed look at a situation that seems intractable.
"Sun Come Up"
While watching "Sun Come Up", I was struck by how similar it was to another short film I'd seen a few months ago, right down to its opening of climate-change refugees appearing on a radio talk show. There's good reason for this - Jennifer Redfearn's picture is either an expansion of her previous short film, the ten-minute "The Next Wave", or a further examination of the same topic. In it, we see how residents of the Carteret Islands near Papua New Guinea are about to become homeless, not just by how rising sea levels threaten to swallow up their tiny archipelago, but by the environmental damage caused in the meantime.
When I saw the earlier version, one thing I noted was that Redfearn and company could have spent a little more time educating those not familiar with the area on the geography, and the longer run time does does allow her to present more facts, including a demonstration of how, even if the sea levels were to be stopped in their tracks immediately, much damage has already been done. It's simple, straightforward science that shows how this situation affects specific people, and well-done.
There are a few moments when it feels like the picture may have been expanded a little far - in a fictional film, one might think that more characters were introduced than could be properly developed - and it's somewhat unusual in that it might actually play a little better if it ended a little less resolved: Though we're happy that some people on the war-torn larger island are capable of empathy and generosity, the audience might feel a little more motivated to do something about the root causes of the problem if the Carteret people are as desperate at the end as at the start.
"The Warriors of Qiugang"
The same can perhaps be said of "The Warriors of Qiugang", though it certainly doesn't end with all the problems of this village in China's Anhui Province solved. Of all the films in the category, it's the one I might most like to see extended into a feature, or even adapted as a fictional film; with its complete story arc, likable hero, and relatively politically-acceptable storyline, I wouldn't be surprised if some Chinese filmmaker were to make something along the lines of The Legend of Qiu Ju out of it.
The stakes are a little higher than that, though - the village of Qiugang finds its crops devastated by the chemical plant built nearby, and finding redress for this is quite difficult, considering that the chemical company seems to have gangs and the local government on its side, and the bureaucracy is seemingly designed to be impenetrable to the mostly-illiterate inhabitants of this farming community. Still, director Ruby Yang is able to spend three years following the villager's progress, and they likely benefit by having the filmmakers there, too - in one sequence, it seems abundantly clear that the American film crew is making it harder for a factory representative to intimidate the villager's representative.
And that man, Wang Gongli, is a large part of why the film works so well. A man of late-middle-age or perhaps a grandfather, Wang is not much better educated than most of his neighbors - he made it through roughly the fourth grade decades ago - but he learns the law well enough to know which letters to send to the right people, eventually working the system well enough to get Beijing involved. He's a humble man, with a frequent smile, and Ms. Yang is smart enough to let let him be that: The word hero is used, but in a self-deprecating way, and letting him remain an ordinary man rather than trying to build him up makes his accomplishments more impressive, even if the end titles are right to point out that those accomplishments are also fragile.
As the case of Wang Gongli shows us, documentaries can be made or broken by "casting", for lack of a better term. There are probably thousands of documentaries made on worthy topics that just don't get traction because the filmmakers never found the right person for the audience to identify with. Director Sara Nesson does not have that problem with "Poster Girl"; whether she intended to make a movie about Robynn Murray from the start or settled on her after looking at the topic of post-traumatic stress from a broader perspective, Sgt. Murray's misfortune turns out to be this movie's gain.
Her story is, after all, compelling - a former cheerleader from a family with a tradition of military service, she joined the army at the age of 19, and despite being told that she would be working support and outreach, she soon winds up in an exposed turret of an armored vehicle, unable to find the snipers targeting her among the civilians. She returns home with physical injuries as well as PTSD, facing the challenges of trying to get the VA to give her the care she needs and just trying to get through the day.
Much of the film involves watching and listening to Robynn, and she makes a great subject. She's comfortable being in front of and opening up to the camera, but not in a way that causes the audience to doubt that she's a mess otherwise. We're able to see her low points, including one that comes so quickly that we might not believe it if an actor showed a character breaking down that way. It's possible to see the person she was behind the person she has become, and curse the war all the more for what it does to people like her. Nesson tells her story extremely well, showing small steps on the road to healing as well as the sense of betrayal that seems to haunt her as much as the louder, gorier horrors of war.
"Strangers No More"
After a long diet of documentaries about what is wrong and miserable about the world, it's nice to finish the program on one about people doing good. "Strangers No More" covers a year at a public school in the middle of Tel Aviv, located in a district filled with refugees and immigrants from forty-eight countries. The students speak nearly as many languages, and in many cases this would be a recipe for chaos.
Somehow, it works. Directors Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon don't necessarily present the educators as doing anything particularly revolutionary, although as the audience watches, little things seem to add up: Everybody learns Hebrew. The school is open until evening so that students have a place to go and productive activities when they might otherwise get in trouble. Kids are encouraged to interact with each other and given responsibilities when they're able to handle them. Simple, intuitive things from educators willing to get involved in their students' lives. It might not scale too well to larger schools, but it works here.
Goodman and Simon don't get too fancy with the film, either - early on, they introduce three African students that they will follow more closely than the others, lay out their particular challenges, and use their progression and maturation over the course of the school year to show the school's methods, the teachers' commitment, and how, if you show kindness and understanding, ethnic and cultural differences don't matter much to kids at all.
Not a bad way to end a program that started with terrorism practically right next door.
I won't guess which filmmakers will take home the statuette - had I a vote, it would probably be for "Poster Girl", but no-one's getting robbed here. All five do a fine job of presenting interesting information on a variety of topics, and anybody who has a chance to give them more than the combined minute or so they'll get on Oscar night will likely find it well worth their while.
Seen 13 February 2010 at the Coolidge Corner Screening Room (Special Event)