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Oscar Shorts: Documentary nominees

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The documentary shorts were the real marathon of the short programs. The other two programs came in under two hours, with the live actions averaging about 20 minutes apiece and the animateds mostly less than 10 minutes. Each of these mini-docs ran a solid 40 minutes, for a total run time of 200 minutes (that’s 3 hours, 20 minutes). The showing at the Capitol had a very welcome 10-minute intermission between docs three and four.

I’m not a big documentary person, either, but something about the 40-minute runtimes really worked for me, letting me get invested and informed, but rarely rolling over into boredom.


Inocente (2012)

This one was a profile of a gifted young artist, Inocente. Fifteen years old, living in Southern California, effectively homeless. She seems like an extraordinary person.

She is one of those people who you see sometimes and you think, that person lives their art. Inocente does it quite visibly—she dresses a little wild (remember Claudia Kishi, guys? She’s like the Mexican version of that) up to and including drawing patterns on her face with makeup every day (intense cat eyes, flowers or feathers on the cheeks, etc.). She is part of a low-income art school program where she has opportunities to express herself through her art, despite the stifling environment she has at “home” with her resentful former-teen-mom and multiple little brothers.

Such a great story, but I didn’t care at all for the style of the narrative. It was produced by MTV Films, and though I know that they’ve made a respectable name for themselves producing documentaries and other fiction films, Inocente had some MTV-ready elements that I felt detracted from the story. There were the unnecessary hand-drawn titles—drawn by Inocente, sure, but a little cloying in their 15-year-oldness and seeming to want to recall other hand-drawn titles MTV has indulged in.

Also, so much of the story was told by Inocente, dead center close-up. I didn’t have a problem with her words, but I would have preferred to hear them in voiceover and see her going about her daily life (you know, documentary-like) rather than have her just sitting there in her room like, “So, this is my life.” There’s something about the “relating my story to a camera that’s two inches from my face” thing that just screams “reality TV” to me. Like instead of talking about being raised by a teen mom and jumping from shelter to shelter, she should be saying, “It really pissed me off that Mikayla said that about me. But I’m not here to make friends!”

I went back and forth on loving her art and thinking it was overwhelmed by extra touches. Like, we get the hot pink and the thick strokes; you don’t need the glitter too, Inocente. But she’s fifteen. That element of her work will settle in time, probably. I have no doubt she has a huge career ahead of her.

Four more docs after the jump…

Kings Point

Kings Point (2012)

In pop culture old people generally tend towards three categories: the wild free spirit (you’d see a lot of these in bad 80s sitcoms), the curmudgeon (see Grandpa Simpson or the old guy from Up), and the immensely wise mentor (Morrie, of Tuesdays With…).

Kings Point, which is about a retirement community in Florida populated mostly by oldsters from the New York city area, deals entirely in real people—vividly real people, who you imagine would snort in derision at those stereotypes.

These people felt vividly real in comparison. Even though media tells us that old people’s lives are effectively over, these ones are still embroiled in trials and tribulations all the time. They have romantic quandaries. They compete with each other. They pass judgment on each others’ lifestyle choices. (One of my favorite bits was one of the old ladies detailing how she was fine being alone at her stage in life, but that some of the women in the place couldn’t draw a breath without a man by their side. “They bury one, they get another.”) They talk about feeling emotionally stunted. One woman talks about how being away from her family causes her to forget about her kids, her grandkids, to care less and less about them and what they’re doing.

Heartbreakingly, another woman talks about how she had close friends and relations in her previous life, but how in the complex everybody just swims on the surface as “acquaintances”; nobody gets too involved in each other’s lives. The undercurrent here of course is that they know they all have limited time left.

Only one guy states this bit outright: Frank, who is stringing along his girlfriend Bea. He’s shown to be a bit of a cad, squiring Bea around to places then wandering off with other women, or complaining that he has to stay with her, reiterating to her that they are “just friends” although they seem to be close to living together. Near the end, he lays it out for the camera: Bea is ten years older than he is. He’s had one wife die on him already and he won’t stand for that again. Which certainly made me think about the never-ending cycle of women doing the grunt work in relationships. I mean, almost every single woman down there is a widow herself. So if he finds this nice youthful lady for himself, whom he presumes will run out his life with him, she’ll have to have lost two husbands. He can’t lose two wives, but if a woman has to lose two husbands? Not his problem, I guess. The end titles of the show let us know how that perspective ultimately worked out for Frank, by the way.

Despite this fascinating perspective on an underrepresented demographic (the “Greatest Generation” that we kind of pat on the head and lock in the closet), the documentary was the most inconsequential of the five. There wasn’t much of a narrative through-line, not even one or two characters who we saw play out a story arc to its resolution. Just more of a slice of life, a peek through the window—but an interesting one, and quite striking in its own way.

Mondays at Racine

Mondays at Racine (2012)

This was the one that made everybody cry. It will almost certainly play in the future on Lifetime or Oxygen or OWN.

The basic premise here is that cancer, specifically breast cancer, besides making women feel sucky and scared of dying, also robs them of their femininity, and whatever beauty they could claim before. The nucleus for the action is this salon, Racine Salon and Spa, which devotes one Monday a month to cancer patients, who can be beautied up free of charge.

Chemo-induced hair loss is the most obvious visual symbol here. We start the doc out with Cambria, a woman in her late twenties or early thirties who is just starting to pull her hair out in clumps. She shows up at Racine asking bravely for a buzz cut. Because they do this regularly, they know what an ordeal it is. The stylist sort of mentally prepares her with talk, and then one of the proprietors comes over to hold her hand. We’ll see that this seems to be a standard feature of service. There’s a lot of crying, but she’s relieved to find she’s basically cute as a baldie, her head isn’t weird-shaped, and then she settles exhausted into her complimentary pedicure.

Another woman, Linda, an older black woman who has been in and out of remission for 17 YEARS, has got the most pronounced black circles under her eyes I’ve ever seen in a human person. She sits down one day for makeup treatment, including false eyelashes (chemo has made all hers fall out—did you know that happened? I did not). She marvels that she could be twenty years younger. Despite that positive moment, Linda’s life is mostly tanking, as she is splitting from her unsupportive lump of a husband and considering going off chemo for good.

Mastectomies also feature here: Cambria needs to lose one, and wonders if she should just take them both off preemptively. She does a great bit about how the lefty (which has the tumor) has “betrayed” her so she’s not too broken up about losing it, but how righty hasn’t done anything wrong. We sit in on a lot of her discussions with her family, with Linda, about how she feels about these changes wrought on her body. It’s the kind of thing that the doctors can’t do for her.

The narrative was certainly affecting—again, it was the biggest tearjerker of the lineup—but it lacked focus, I think. The salon seemed like a grasp for a central narrative location that didn’t really work. We actually learned very little about the two sisters who run the place, other than that their mom died of breast cancer, and that being witness so often to suffering makes them feel better about their lives. (Which they managed to say in a non-selfish-sounding way, not the way I just wrote it.) Some of the cancer women the doc follows meet here at the salon, but their home stories take precedence. Cambria and Linda meet up in a coffee shop at one point, to discuss what Cambria can expect during her mastectomy, but beyond that they don’t seem to be leaning on each other, particularly. Linda has her daughter; Cambria has friends who bring champagne to her last chemo session, family who watches her boys while she’s in the hospital. The salon and its denizens seem tangential to their lives, is what I’m saying.

Plus there are all these other women who get interviewed, whom the story returns to now and again, who never seem to set foot in the salon. Who are they? Where did they come from? How do we know them? I’m not going to pretend Mimi and her husband weren’t delightful, because they were, but they were off in their own little universe.

But Linda was a heartbreaker, and Cambria was sweet. And the salon’s idea is so good I hope salons all over the place adopt it.

Open Heart

Open Heart (2013)

This was the one I think everybody was dreading: destitute child heart patients in Africa! It’s like Suffering Bingo.

Actually, it was not that bad at all. It followed this cardiologist in Rwanda who had chosen a handful of his most critical heart patients to travel up north with him into Sudan, where there is a state-of-the-art charity hospital—corrective surgeries, completely free. It’s run by an Italian foundation that exists solely to provide first aid to victims of poverty and war.

So our Rwandan doctor, who’s banging around down there in a hospital that looks like someone’s enclosed porch, brings all these kids—ranging in age from toddler to late teens—up into another country for their life-saving surgeries. He has to inform all their parents that Sudan does not have a system for repatriation, meaning if the kid dies, they will be buried in Sudan without being returned home. So, the situation is quite fraught for everybody.

The Sudan setting makes for a very interesting situation. Sudan, of course, is the country we in the developed world know for its widespread genocide, and in particular its roving bands of like, 7-year-olds with machetes. I don’t know how the hospital came to be placed there (in its capital city of Khartoum), but it gets partially funded from the Sudanese government, and at one point the president of Sudan visits the hospital for a financial negotiation. A screen title informs us that he has been accused by international organizations of “crimes against humanity.” This is not a good dude. But the head of the hospital, this Italian guy—who is crazy interesting, kind of the breakout star of the doc (read more about the doc’s participants here)—lays it out for us, real straight and narrow. “Politics do not belong in the hospital,” he explains. He definitely has a point: what good is taking a stand if it just means more deaths from treatable heart conditions? He sits at a conference table and argues with this murderous general that they were promised $5 million and $5 million is what they’re going to get. The president keeps asking why they need to take on patients free of charge. Why do they not make it a private hospital and treat the rich? I’m telling you, bad dude.

The saddest part of this, really, is that rheumatic heart failure, from which most of these children are suffering, is like 100% preventable by western medicine. The charming doctor from Rwanda explains that the condition comes from having an infection, usually strep throat, that is untreated for long periods of time, and which gradually weakens the heart valves until they cease to function. ALL THEY NEED IS PENICILLIN! AND THEY WOULDN’T BE IN THIS MESS AT ALL! That hurt my heart, let me tell you.


Redemption (2012)

I think this was my favorite, and the one I’ll root for on Oscar night. Which I would not have expected based on its description, but then that’s why we watch the movies, right? Because you say, I’m not sure this subject matter interests me, and then the filmmaking is so intense and great, it dazzles you.

The story is about collectors, specifically those people who wander up and down the New York City streets rifling through the trash, retrieving thrown-away bottles and cans so that they may build upon their fortunes 5 cents at a time.

The people in this doc are kind of grubby; most of them look like they smell. They look like the type of people I will make an effort not to sit next to on the city bus. (Yes, I’m one of those prissy middle-class types.) And some of them were definitely not all there in their minds.

One thing the doc did, it seemed, was the filmmakers  prompted the subjects to ask questions of each other, rather than the filmmakers asking themselves, from on or off-camera. So we would get a collector telling us his own story, then he’d meet up with another guy and ask, for benefit of the camera, “How did you get started doing this?” Through this, we got to see these tenuous connections these people form with each other. There’s basically a subculture formed around this act of scrounging for bottles, and they all know each other in the neighborhood, and even if they don’t, they will nod to each other as they push their shopping carts past and say “good haul today.”

The movie recognizes that at every second these people are scraping by, living a scavenger’s life—some of them are illegals, too, and a lot of them probably have a few screws loose—and yet the movie has palpable respect for them, too, creates it in this way that people who write profiles sometimes can do. “This man is insane, but there is brilliance in the way he does X Y and Z.” And you don’t come away feeling sorry for the man; you come away feeling charmed and interested in the vibrancy of his existence.

Which is not to say I didn’t feel sorry for the people in Redemption. It definitely makes you feel like the collection process is hard work. Their feet hurt, their backs hurt, and they’re living in squalor. But they all seem to feel the same way, as in: we’ve had some bad luck, some unfortunate circumstances, but right now we are doing everything we can to make it better (as the title suggests). The last woman to be profiled, a young Mexican (I think) immigrant, who brings her youngest son with her on the daily hunt because he’s still too young for school, declares defiantly to the camera that she thinks there is dignity in what she does. She is supporting her boys in the only way she has figured out so far.

My Favorite: Redemption

Predicted Winner: Inocente, and I hope she comes to the show; I am dying to see what she will wear

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