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2011 Oscars: Documentary shorts have heart, but little ambition

February 15, 2011 - 12:01 PM
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Sun Come Up
Sun Come Up: A bright spot in a lackluster crop.

Documentaries have always been — for my adult life, anyway — a safer bet than what we call narrative, fictional, or dramatic films. The directorial standards, for one, are lower. The viewer doesn't expect masterful lighting, tracking or crane shots, or even a particularly good image. (Those demands might be changing, as filmmakers like Errol Morris and James Marsh introduce dramatic techniques to the medium; on the other hand, documentaries often rely on the invisibility of the camera, which is only enhanced by an obvious lack of such techniques.) Nor does the viewer demand a rainbow-perfect narrative arc and a denouement that sweeps clean any outstanding questions. (That, too, might be changing, as the rising popularity of documentaries puts greater pressure on filmmakers to inject drama into their stories — thus, the controversies over fact versus fiction in recent docs that, unlike the intentionally provocative I'm Still Here or Exit Through the Gift Shop, purport to be utter nonfiction.)

OK, so maybe it's difficult to make absolute statements right now about documentaries, a medium that (as my parenthetical asides suggest) is undergoing significant change. I don't think it's a reach, however, to argue that the strength of documentaries remains the same: that they can teach us more about our world, from a factual perspective, than dramatic films can. The narrative demands are lessened by the supposition of truth; that is, believing what we're seeing to be true creates drama where, in a fictional film, we might feel none. Knowing that these lives are real, we give the film the benefit of the doubt. All we ask is that it show us something we've never known about the world.

In that sense, the five documentary shorts nominated this year for an Academy Award are a success. I knew little or nothing about their specific subjects, and when I finished watching all 200 minutes — which are currently screening at the West End Cinema, with an intermission — I was a slightly more informed human being. And yet, that didn't feel like enough anymore, perhaps because my demands as a documentary fan have changed, or because there wasn't enough depth of story — of immersion on the scale of Last Train Home — in these films. (After all, there's a reason they're not feature-length docs: There wasn't enough compelling material to justify ninety minutes.) It might have helped if the Academy had chosen at least one film that wasn't about an injustice of some kind. Would it have killed them, for instance, to nominate a comedy like Enter the Beard?

Here they are:

Killing in the Name

Jordanians Ashraf and his wife Nadia lost 27 members of their wedding party, including three of their parents, in one of the coordinated hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. In response, Ashraf became a vocal opponent of Islamic terrorism, which, as he frequently points out, kills more Muslims than members of any other religion. Director Jed Rothstein manages to interview a recruiter for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group responsible for the bombings, but nothing illuminating emerges. Ashraf, meanwhile, meets with the father of the man responsible for a major suicide bombing in Iraq, and later travels to Indonesia, but in the end his message — that Muslims should not be killing other Muslims — rings hollow. Killing Christians or Jews or atheists in the name of Allah is, of course, no less reprehensible.

Poster Girl

Robynn Murray was a high school cheerleader and National Merit Scholar who joined the Army, only to become disillusioned and left with post-traumatic stress disorder. The first half of the film is spent watching her cry and read from her journal, which is affecting at times, shrill at others. It's not that I don't sympathize with her. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is late on her disability commission, and collection agencies are hounding her. And, of course, there's the PSD. It's awful stuff she's dealing with, but the story is stagnant and her contributions to a local art exhibition at the film's end isn't nearly enough to save it.

Strangers No More

There's an idyllic public school in Tel Aviv, Israel, that teaches students from 48 countries. Some of these students are refugees from places like Darfur or Eritrea, and they have horrifying stories that are mostly glossed over in this superficial documentary. Sure, it's uplifting to see such harmonious diversity, and to see the homeless find a home, but ultimately it feels like an overlong commercial put together by the school's admissions office.

The Warriors of Qiugang

Last week, I watched a lengthy, gripping report on Al Jazeera about the effects of a chemical plant in a Chinese town. This documentary short covers similar ground, spending three years documenting villagers' resistance to a chemical plant in the heart of Qiugang, where the air, water, and ground have been poisoned and cancer rates are soaring. Given the time spent shooting in the village, you'd expect to learn a lot about a few of the residents' lives. Not so.

Sun Come Up

This is the best film in the group — the most attractively shot and the most illuminating. The Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea are rapidly disappearing with the global rise in sea level, and its inhabitants need to find a new home. Soon. A group of them travels to "the mainland," Bougainville Island, to plead for donated land. The government won't provide any, and the mainlanders, still recovering from a Civil War in the 1990s, are suspicious of the visitors — who, in turn, are scared of this land of alcohol and guns. Of the five nominated shorts, only this one's conclusion moved me nearly to tears.

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